Housework could boost memory and attention span in old age, study finds

People who are adverse to household chores might be pleased to hear that jobs such as laundry, cooking meals and vacuuming could boost memory and attention span in older adults.

Researchers said that elderly people who participate in a combination of light housework and more physically demanding chores appear to have “higher cognitive function”.

Experts in Singapore wanted to assess whether doing household chores contributes towards healthy ageing by boosting physical activity levels and mental capacity.

The new study, published in the journal BMJ Open, examined data on almost 500 pensioners and younger adults aged between 21 and 90.

All were living independently and able to carry out routine day-to-day tasks.

Researchers examined walking speed and sit-to-stand speed from a chair – which is indicative of leg strength and falls risk – to assess the participants’ levels of physical activity.

Their mental agility was also assessed with tests designed to examine memory, language and attention span.

Participants were quizzed about the intensity and frequency of household chores as well as other types of physical activity.

Credit: PA

Only around a third (36%) of those in the younger group and just under half (48%) of those in the older age group – aged 65 and over – met recommended physical activity levels from recreational activities alone.

But around two thirds – 61% of adults aged 64 and younger and 66% of older adults – met the targets exclusively through housework.

Overall, they found that a combination of light housework – including washing the dishes, dusting, making the bed, doing the laundry, hanging out the laundry, ironing, tidying up and cooking meals.

“Heavy housework” – such as window cleaning, changing beddings, beating the mat, vacuuming, washing or scrubbing the floor, and chores involving sawing, repairing or painting – was “associated with higher cognitive function” among older adults, but not younger adults.

More specifically, older adults who participated in more heavy housework had 14% higher attention span scores.

And those who regularly performed light house work tested better on memory tests.

Meanwhile, those who regularly performed the more physically demanding jobs around the house had reduced sit-to-stand times and better balance and co-ordination scores compared with those who did not regularly engage in these activities.

The authors point out that the study is an observational one so no firm conclusions can be drawn and they called for more research to establish the link between household jobs and health.

“In conclusion, our study suggests that a combination of light and heavy housework is associated with higher cognitive function, specifically in attention and memory domains, among community-dwelling older adults,” they wrote.

“Furthermore, the positive associations of housework levels with physical and sensorimotor functions in older adults were intensity dependent.

“Housework may also complement recreational physical activity among current older community-dwelling adults in high-income countries towards healthier ageing.

“Future longitudinal and intervention studies are required to establish causality between housework activities and functional health.”