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So, You're Extremely Busy? Researchers Say You Likely Have Better Memory, Reasoning

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A lot of us think rushing from task to task and packing our schedules is a necessary evil. It turns out being busy might be good for your brain. That’s the conclusion of a new study led by North Texas researchers in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.

Denise Park knows what it's like to be busy.

"I designed the busyness survey [years ago] when I was a single mother with two teenage children and was a professor at the University of Michigan,” she says, in between presentations at the fifth annual Dallas Aging & Cognition Conference

What she didn’t know was what all that sprinting from class to pick up kids to the grocery to doctors did to the brain — to memory in particular. 

“There’s a remarkable absence of work on the effects of busyness on cognition," Park says, even though everyone is always talking about how busy they are. 

So, Park, a neuroscientist at the University of Texas at Dallas, worked with postdoctoral researcher Sara Festini on a study. They rounded up more than 300 people to find out about the connection between busyness and the brain. 

“They completed a large battery of cognitive tests where they were asked to different things in the lab, like memorize words, do things like reasoning, looking at patterns, and then we also gave them this questionnaire that asked how busy they were on a daily basis," Festini says. 

Busy people do better on tasks of memory and reasoning

And what’d they find?

People who have busy lives tend to do better on tasks of memory and tasks of reasoning

This is a bit surprising, because Festini and Park thought people who were chronically busy and stressed might have poorer cognitive performance. Particularly worse memory. See, stress hormones, like Cortisol, aren’t good for memory. And stress and busyness often go hand-in-hand.

“But it appears the benefits of being extremely busy and engaged outweigh the negative effects," Park says. 

Neither Park nor Festini are saying if you stay busy you’ll automatically be mentally sharp — remember, their study shows correlation, not causation. They’ll need to do more research to determine whether being busy actually boosts the brain or whether people with better memory tend to just stay busier.

And, Festini points out people who are really busy often do worse on prospective memory tasks — remembering to do things in the future — like going to the doctors or taking medication.

“It’s going to  be important to study busyness and stress within the same individuals," she says. "I would think that the optimal relationship would be engaged and busy but not having an extreme level of stress because we know stress can be detrimental to the brain.”

So, Festini is trying not to get stressed while staying busy with research.

Lauren Silverman was the Health, Science & Technology reporter/blogger at KERA News. She was also the primary backup host for KERA’s Think and the statewide newsmagazine  Texas Standard. In 2016, Lauren was recognized as Texas Health Journalist of the Year by the Texas Medical Association. She was part of the Peabody Award-winning team that covered Ebola for NPR in 2014. She also hosted "Surviving Ebola," a special that won Best Long Documentary honors from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). And she's won a number of regional awards, including an honorable mention for Edward R. Murrow award (for her project “The Broken Hip”), as well as the Texas Veterans Commission’s Excellence in Media Awards in the radio category.