Higher levels of housework leads to sharper memory in older people – research

Doing more chores better protects against falls in older age, medical journal report finds

Spouses failing to pull their weight in domestic chores now have added encouragement as new research has shown that housework leads to sharper memory and attention span in older people.

Medical journal BMJ Open reports that researchers in Singapore found that greater amounts of housework led to better leg strength and, by extension, greater protection against falls in older age. The findings were independent of work activities, physical exercise and active commuting.

The researchers looked at 489 adults aged 21-90 with fewer than five underlying conditions and no cognitive issues living in one large town in Singapore. They split the people into two groups: people aged 21-64 and people aged 65-90.

Only a third of the younger group and about half of the older group met the recommended level of physical activity from recreational activity, while almost two-thirds of both groups met this target exclusively through housework.


Adjusting for other types of regular physical activity, the results showed housework was linked with sharper mental abilities and better physical capacity but only among the older group.

Cognitive scores were 8 per cent and 5 per cent higher respectively among those doing high volumes of light or heavy housework compared with those in the low volume groups.

The researchers defined heavy housework as window cleaning, changing the bed, vacuuming, washing the floor and activities such as painting and decorating. Light housework included washing up, dusting, making the bed, hanging out washing, ironing, tidying up and cooking.

Heavy housework was associated with a 14 per cent higher attention score while light work was linked with 12 per cent and 8 per cent higher short and delayed memory scores respectively.

Physical agility was better too among those who did more housework.

The sit-to-stand time and balance co-ordination scores were 8 per cent and 23 per cent faster respectively among those who did higher volumes of domestic chores.

The researchers found that the younger group had on average five more years of education than the older people.

Given that education level is associated with higher mental agility and slower cognitive decline, this likely explains why the positive associations between housework and cognition were not apparent in the younger adults, the researchers found.

The results of the research suggested higher cognitive and physical functions from heavy housework might plausibly be associated with lower physiological fall risk among older adults.

Incorporating physical activity into daily lifestyle through domestic duties “has the potential to achieve higher physical activity, which is positively associated with functional health, especially among older community-dwelling adults”, the report concludes.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent