The study of older adults found that those with packed schedules tended to do better on tests of memory, information processing and reasoning.
Researchers said the findings don't prove that "busyness" makes us smarter. For one, sharper people may seek out more mental stimulation. These people may also have more resources, such as higher incomes, that allow them to lead active lives.
On the other hand, past research has found that learning new skills can improve older adults' overall mental acuity, said study leader Sara Festini.
"We think it is likely that being busy is good for your cognition," said Festini, a researcher with the Center for Vital Longevity at the University of Texas at Dallas.
She and her colleagues reported the findings in the May 17 online issue of Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.
The results are in line with those from many previous studies, the researchers said.
Past research has found that older adults who are more active -- mentally, physically or socially -- tend to have better mental function and a lower risk of dementia. In fact, the Alzheimer's Association recommends all three types of activity for maintaining better brain health.
According to Festini, busyness could be a proxy for people's "cognitive engagement" in daily life.
For the study, she and her colleagues had 330 men and women rate their "busyness" levels -- asking questions such as, "How often do you have too many things to do each day to actually get them all done?" The study volunteers were between 50 and 89 years old.
The researchers also gave the volunteers a battery of tests that gauged memory, information processing speed, reasoning and vocabulary.
Overall, the study found, the busier people were in their daily lives, the better their test performance -- especially when it came to remembering specific events from the past. The findings were not explained by age or education level.
Still, there are other potential explanations for the connection, said Debra Fleischman, a professor of neurological and behavioral sciences at Rush University Medical Center, in Chicago.
"Occupation, income, ethnicity and race are all important factors that can influence accessibility to resources that support an active lifestyle," said Fleischman, who wasn't involved in the study.
Plus, she added, people's health -- physical and mental -- could affect both their daily activities and their scores on tests of memory and thinking ("cognition").
Festini said she was interested in studying the subject because people often talk about their tight schedules, but there's little research on how our "busyness" relates to health.
On one hand, a packed schedule could cause unhealthy levels of stress; on the other, busy people may have more "effortful engagement" with life, the researchers suggested.
According to Fleischman, it would be interesting to know whether the busy study participants were stressed out by their schedules. And that, she noted, could vary by age.
Older adults might tend to see a hectic schedule as a good thing -- a sign that they have purpose in life, Fleischman said. But, she added, it's possible that younger people could view busyness in a more negative light.
The current findings say nothing about the types of activities that are related to sharper mental skills, Fleischman pointed out. But past studies have already shown there may be benefits from physical exercise, mental tasks -- such as crossword puzzles and reading -- and social activities, she said.
"Daily activity is important to promote cognitive health in people over age 50," Fleischman said.
Festini agreed. "[This study] provides further motivation to seek out additional activities and to keep learning new skills throughout adulthood," she said.
The Alzheimer's Association has tips for preserving brain health.
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