21 May 2021

Household Chores Help Brain

Welcome back. Nine years ago, in a blog post Vacuuming with Cats, I wrote:

[M]y wife takes the lead on fix-it chores in our household. If, instead of cheering “Go, Girl!” you bemoan the lot of the harried wife who, even in this modern age, must still do it all, please search for my older blog posts on laundry and food shopping. You’ll learn that I handle those chores. In fact, in my very first post, I mentioned that I also do the cleaning…This accounting isn’t to seek acclaim or refocus the target of your bemoaning; it’s only so I may get to vacuuming.

Warren’s cleaning tools…well, most of them.

Forgive my reminiscing. I just wanted to explain why there’s a very good chance I have increased the volume of my brain. Oh, sorry again. I should have mentioned a study by researchers affiliated with Canada’s Rotman Research Institute, the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute and the University of Toronto. They found that time spent engaging in household physical activity was positively associated with brain volume in older adults.

May I tell you how they came to that conclusion?

Looking at Physical Activity and Brain Health
It’s well documented that physical activity, especially recreational, is positively associated with brain volume and cognition in older adults. What is less understood is the contribution of other daily activities. The researchers set out to identify associations among household physical activity, brain volume and cognition in older adults that were cognitively unimpaired and free from significant medical, neurological or psychiatric conditions.

Screening of potential study participants included telephoned demographic, medical and cognitive questions in addition to three hospital visits for a health evaluation, cognitive assessment and structural brain imaging (acquired with a Siemens Trio 3T MRI Scanner).

Sixty-six participants were selected (ages 65 to 83; 62% female) and further assessed using Phone-FITT, a telephone questionnaire for collecting information from older adults on the frequency, duration and intensity (based on breathing) of all physical activities performed over the past month. (The questionnaire's developers note that intensity measures tend to decrease response reliability and might be omitted, which the researchers did.)

Phone-FITT accounts for season, allows reporting of activities not specifically listed and categorizes household apart from recreational physical activities. Household physical activity includes light housework (tidying, dusting), meal preparation and clean up, shopping, heavy housework, home maintenance (yard work, home repairs) and care giving.

Analyzing the Data

The researchers extracted estimates of the volumes of intracranial, whole brain, gray matter, white matter, hippocampal and frontal lobe from the structural images of each participant’s head. To account for head size variability, brain volumetric measures were adjusted for intracranial volume.

Brain cross-section, showing gray matter and white matter
Cognitive performance was assessed in four domains: memory, working memory/attention, processing speed and executive function.

Associations among physical activity (household and recreational), brain volume and cognition were investigated with statistical modeling, adjusting for age, gender, Framingham Risk score (estimates 10-year cardiovascular risk) and either intracranial volume or education. Additional analyses examined significant results and associations with hippocampal and frontal lobe volume.

Wrap Up
The study found household, but not recreational, physical activity was positively associated with brain volume measurements, especially gray matter volume. In contrast, no significant associations were observed between household or recreational physical activity and cognition.

Key differences between brain gray matter and white matter (www.developinghumanbrain.org/ graphic modified from www.pinterest.de/pin/457959855860455384/).
The researchers posited that the lack of association between recreational physical activity and brain health indicators could be attributed to the removal of Phone-FITT intensity from the analysis, which might also explain the lack of association with white matter volume.

Above all, the study highlighted the brain benefits associated with household chores and may motivate older adults to be more active by providing a more sustainable, low risk form of physical activity.

Please don’t inquire if I can assist with cleaning. I already have enough to benefit my brain. Many thanks for stopping by.

Study of household physical activity and brain volume in BMC Geriatrics journal: bmcgeriatr.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12877-021-02054-8
Article on study on EurekAlert! website: eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2021-04/bcfg-sto041521.php
Phone-FITT reference: journals.humankinetics.com/view/journals/japa/16/3/article-p292.xml
Brain size and volume background: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuroscience_and_intelligence

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