Study examines the relationship between housework and functional health in older adults

Housework in older adults is associated with sharper memory, better attention span, and better leg strength, and thus greater protection against falls.

The results were independent of other regular physical activities in leisure time and at work as well as active commuting.

Regular physical activity is good for maintaining optimal physical and mental health. And in older adults, it reduces the risks of long-term illness, falls, immobility, addiction, and death.

However, global surveillance data suggests that physical activity was well below recommended weekly levels in 2016 and had changed little in a decade, with people in high-income countries being more than twice as likely to be couch potatoes as those in low-income countries Income.

Given that housework involves physical activity and is an indicator of the ability to live independently, the researchers wanted to investigate whether doing housework could contribute to healthy aging and improve the physical and mental performance of older adults in a wealthy country .

They comprised 489 randomly selected adults between the ages of 21 and 90 years with fewer than 5 underlying diseases and no cognitive problems. All of them lived independently in a large residential city in Singapore and were able to do everyday, routine chores.

The participants were divided into two age groups: 21-64 year olds (249; mean age 44), classified as “younger”; and 65-90 year olds (240; average age 75) who are classified as “older”.

To assess the physical performance, the walking (walking) speed and the getting up speed from a chair (indicative of the leg strength and the risk of falling) were used. Validated tests were used to assess mental agility (short and delayed memory, visuospatial ability, language and attention span) and physiological factors related to falls.

Participants were asked about the intensity and frequency of household chores they did regularly, as well as how many other types of physical activity they did.

Light housework included washing up, dusting, making beds, hanging up laundry, ironing, tidying up and cooking. Heavy housework was defined as cleaning windows, changing beds, vacuuming, washing floors and activities such as painting / decorating.

Housework intensity was measured in metabolic task equivalents (METs). These roughly correspond to the amount of energy (calories) consumed per minute of physical activity. Light housework was assigned a MET of 2.5; heavy housework was assigned a MET of 4.

Only around a third (36%; 90) of the younger and only around half (48%; 116) of the older achieved the recommended exercise rate through recreational sport alone.

But almost two thirds (61%, 152 younger and 66%, 159 older) achieved this goal solely through housework.

After adapting to other types of regular physical activity, the results showed that housework was associated with stronger mental abilities and better physical performance. But only in the older age group.

Cognitive scores were 8% and 5% higher, respectively, in those who did a lot of light or heavy housework compared to those in the low-volume groups.

And the intensity of housework was linked to certain cognitive domains. In particular, heavy housework was associated with a 14% higher attention score, while light housework was associated with 12% and 8% higher short-term and delayed memory scores, respectively.

Similarly, the values ​​for standing up time and balance / coordination in the high volume group were 8% and 23% faster, respectively, than in the low volume group.

The younger age groups had an average of five years more education than their older counterparts. And since educational level is positively linked to basic mental agility and slower cognitive decline, this could explain the observed differences in the effect of housework between the two age groups, the researchers explain.

This is an observational study and as such cannot identify a cause, they warn, adding that the study was based on subjective reports of physical activity levels and the amount and intensity of housework.

However, they point to previous research suggesting a link between aerobic exercise and improved cognitive function, so the sharper mental agility associated with housework could occur through similar mechanisms, they suggest.

And they conclude: “Taken together, these results suggest that the higher cognitive, physical, and sensorimotor functions associated with heavy household chores are plausibly linked to a lower physiological risk of falling in older adults in communities.”

They add, “Inclusion [physical activity] Incorporating it into daily lifestyle through domestic chores (e.g. housework) has the potential to be higher [physical activity]that has been positively associated with functional health, especially in older adults living in a community. “


Journal reference:

Lee, SY, et al. (2021) Cross-Sectional Associations of Housework with Cognitive, Physical, and Sensorimotor Functions in Younger and Older Adults in the Community: the Yishun Study. BMJ open.

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