In this study, the researchers looked at the links between household chores, brain volume and cognition in a group of 66 cognitively healthy older adults living in the community. The participants attended three assessment visits at Baycrest Hospital, including a health evaluation, structural brain imaging and cognitive assessment.
Participants were asked about the time they spent on household chores, such as tidying, dusting, meal preparation and clean up, shopping, heavy housework, yard work, home repairs and caregiving.
The researchers found that older adults who spent more time engaging in such activities had greater brain volume, regardless of how much exercise they did. This was observed in the hippocampus, which plays a major role in memory and learning, and the frontal lobe, which is involved in many aspects of cognition.
Although it is possible that individuals with larger brains are more likely to take up household chores, there could be several explanations for the brain benefits of household physical activity.
First, we know that our hearts is closely tied to brain health. It could be that household chores have a similar effect on the heart and blood vessels as low-intensity aerobic exercise.
Second, the planning and organisation involved in household chores may promote the formation of new neural connections over time, even as we age.
Third, it could be that the older adults who engaged in more household chores spent less time being sedentary, which has been shown to be associated with negative health outcomes, including poor brain health.
"Besides helping to guide physical activity recommendations for older adults, these findings may also motivate them to be more active, since household chores are a natural and often necessary aspect of many people's daily lives, and therefore appear more attainable," said Nicole Anderson, senior scientist at the RRI, director of the Ben and Hilda Katz Interprofessional Research Program in Geriatric and Dementia Care, and senior author of this study.
This study was funded in part by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).
As a next step, the researchers would like to assess household physical activity more objectively using wearable technology. With additional funding, they could also plan controlled trials with the aim of increasing individuals' household activity and studying brain changes over time.