Clean freaks rejoice: Household chores make you smarter

Spring cleaning may take on a whole new meaning this year. A new study finds that keeping up with household chores can go a long way toward keeping your mind sharp, especially as you grow older.

Why we hate chores

Humans are nothing if not contradictory. For example, we crave routine, familiarity, and a certain sense of control over our lives. Simultaneously, though, everybody needs a little bit of spontaneity. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that even the most dedicated couch potatoes need the occasional unpredictable weekend. 

On a related note, tons of people say that it isn’t the big, “make it or break it” moments and tasks that they find most challenging, but the mundane, everyday chores that come along with just being a person. Vacuuming. Doing the dishes. Mowing the lawn.

Most of these chores are nothing but mere annoyances for the most part, but the prospect and promised monotony of engaging in such tasks day in and day out for a lifetime can be particularly daunting.

If your boss assigns you an important new client, it’s exciting and maybe a little scary, but you can use that trepidation as motivation. It’s difficult to find the same determination for a task like dusting the windows. 

If any of this rings a bell, and you routinely struggle to meet the daily chores of your routine, the findings of a new study may be just what you needed to start taking care of that to-do list.

This is your brain on chores

Researchers from the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care studied a group of older adults who regularly engaged in household chores and found they displayed greater brain sizes, an indicator of robust cognition. These subjects were looked at in comparison to similarly aged peers who weren’t taking care of their household duties.

“Scientists already know that exercise has a positive impact on the brain, but our study is the first to show that the same may be true for household chores,” says lead study author Noah Koblinsky, Exercise Physiologist and Project Coordinator at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute (RRI). “Understanding how different forms of physical activity contribute to brain health is crucial for developing strategies to reduce the risk of cognitive decline and dementia in older adults.”

On a more detailed level, study authors examined a group of 66 older adults and looked for connections between daily chores, brain size, and cognition. All of the participants were considered healthy, both mentally and physically, at the time of the research. Each subject also underwent three distinct assessments: physical health, structural brain imaging, and a cognitive test.

Then, each person was asked how much time they usually devote to household chores. Specific activities inquired about include cooking, dusting, tidying, cleaning, shopping, yard work, home repair, heavy housework, and caregiving. 

Across the board, individuals who reported spending more time on chores showed larger brain sizes. Importantly, this held up even after exercise habits were considered. More specifically, chore-savvy subjects appear to have bigger hippocampuses and larger frontal lobes. This is quite notable because the hippocampus is involved in memory and learning and the frontal lobe in general plays a big role in cognition.

So, now we know that it’s a really good idea never to skip trash day. All that’s left is the matter of how. How does doing menial chores help the mind stay sharp? Researchers can’t say for sure, but they have a few ideas.

Most chores require at least some form of movement, walking, etc. Study authors say perhaps keeping up with household tasks benefits the cardiovascular system similarly to low-intensity exercise. Strong heart health has been associated with robust cognition for quite some time.

Alternatively, getting chores done requires at least some forethought and planning. It may not seem like much, but maintaining a strict chore schedule may help the brain stay occupied, which is never a bad thing (especially in old age). 

“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,” concludes senior study author Dr. Nicole Anderson, Senior Scientist at the RRI, Director of the Ben and Hilda Katz Interprofessional Research Program in Geriatric and Dementia Care.

It wouldn’t be all that inaccurate to describe life as a series of fleeting moments filled with intense happiness, excitement, and surprise followed by days, weeks, and perhaps months on end of regularity and routine. The next time the regularness of life has you in a rut, recall this research and remember getting something, anything done is better than doing nothing at all.

The full study can be found here, published in BMC Geriatrics.