What The Phrase “Use It Or Lose It” Means To Our Minds
By Danni Peck
Updated February 13, 2020
Reviewer Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPC
Here is a pop quiz question for you.
In a fitness program, the slogan "use it or lose" describes which principle?
- Building muscles
- Improving endurance
- Exercising your brain
If you chose "a" or "b," you, like most people, have come to understand this common phrase regarding physical fitness. In weight training, for example, you must consistently lift increasing amounts to see results. Not doing so, would mean the eventual disappearance of your bulging muscles. Likewise, frequently slacking off on cardiovascular exercises like running, biking, or swimming will eventually lead to a loss of endurance when working out. Your body needs consistent training to maintain its physical capabilities, but did you know your brain works the same way too?
That's right, just like our body, the brain can only function at its maximum when we are using it often. It will deteriorate if it is not being used, just like our muscles, bones, and stamina do when we do not exercise. Training mentally not only boosts our brain power and helps us become better thinkers, but it may also fight against age-related degenerative brain disorders like dementia and Alzheimer's too.
Why Does Using The Brain Matter?
For many years, scientists believed that the brain did not change very much through adulthood. The prevailing idea was that the neurons we had as infants remained mostly unchanged throughout our lives. In recent years, we have come to understand the concept of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity, often called brain plasticity, is the brain's ability to continuously make new neural pathways, interpret the latest information, and adapt to ever-changing situations.
This phenomenon is not just something that happens in our thoughts; it takes place in the neurons of our brain. Physically, the brain can both move important functions from one damaged area to another and change its structure in response to new experiences when needed. When we feed our brain fresh skills and store ever-changing information, we are truly building and forming new connections, keeping our brains "young" and strong.
The Link Between A Healthy Brain And Neurodegenerative Disease
Researchers believe it may be possible to prevent or delay the onset of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and dementia by keeping our brains healthy. They are even hopeful that perhaps one day, brain plasticity exercises can be used as a form of treatment for these conditions. This is major news, given the devastating impacts of these disorders.
What Is Dementia?
Dementia is a blanket term used to describe disorders of the brain that impair cognitive function. Dementia may manifest as foggy thinking, difficulty making decisions, inability to control emotions, and trouble with memory. It usually occurs in the elderly and results from damage to brain cells.
Dementia is a devastating disease. It robs someone of their very mind. As the condition progresses memory problems become more frequent, and can cause individuals to forget loved ones, neglect their self-care, and miss financial obligations. Decreased communication skills and poor judgment also lead to a diminished quality of life.
Dementia comes in many forms. Vascular dementia, for example, occurs when the brain does not get enough blood and may surface after a stroke. Dementia with Lewy bodies is a different form of the condition which results when abnormal protein clumps form in the cortex of the brain. Dementia with Lewy bodies produces symptoms closely related to Parkinson's disease such as hallucinations and difficulty with movement. The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer's.
What Is Alzheimer's?
Alzheimer's is a form of dementia that affects roughly 5.5 million Americans and is currently the 6th most common cause of death in the United States. This disease gradually wears the brain away and is usually seen in individuals 65 years and older. Certain risk factors for Alzheimer's may include genetics, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and severe brain injuries, but researchers are still trying to understand more about the condition.
There is no cure for Alzheimer's, and symptoms will likely progress over the remainder of one's life. The disease usually begins subtly, often tricking people into thinking that they are simply misremembering small details. Over time, the individual will eventually experience symptoms like problems with focus, confusion, trouble remembering where they are or who they are talking to, disorientation, bouts of anger, anxiety, and depression, and difficulty communicating with others.
Taking part in activities that stimulate the brain can promote a healthy mind and reduce the risk of cognitive decline in one's later years. A recent study from Rush University Medical Center discovered that when seniors took part in mentally engaging activities like reading and playing games frequently, they improved the density of "white matter" in their brain. This is important because "white matter" in the brain is responsible for transmitting information. Konstantinos Arfanakis, the author of the study, concluded that with the brain, "if you don't use it, you lose it."
Ways To Train Your Brain
Luckily, there are many ways to keep the brain "young." Here are some ideas to try when you want to exercise your brain.
Learn Something New
Formal education is one of the best ways to keep your brain "young." Do not feel pressured to start your educational career all over again, going after a degree is not necessarily something you need to do. Learning a new language, taking a few classes at your local community college, or simply trying a new activity, will help you build new neural pathways and reduce your risk of age-related mental decline. Spend some time pursuing a new area of interest or learn more about a skill or concept you already know. You are never too old to learn something new.
Play An Instrument
Like formal education, learning to play an instrument will help build new neural pathways and protect the integrity of the brain. Music has its language, and between learning to read the notes on a page and using fine motor skills to produce sounds on an instrument, your brain and body coordination will receive a boost.
Many people think learning a new instrument is an expensive endeavor, but you do not need to shell out money for a new piano or guitar just yet. Look to more affordable options if you are brand new to the hobby by checking out instrument rentals from local music shops, joining small community classes where instruments are already provided, or trying an inexpensive instrument like the recorder or harmonica to start.
Read A Book
Reading stimulates our brain. It takes a lot of mental skills to interpret words on a page. For example, our temporal lobe allows us to recognize words and sounds, while our frontal lobe is responsible for reading fluency and comprehension. All reading can benefit the brain, but sticking with new, complex, or educational information will give you a mental workout.
Logic games and puzzles are great resources for building cognition. Activities such as these, work many parts of the brain include those responsible for memory, decision-making, and problem-solving. You do not have to wait until you can sit down with a traditional chessboard or purchase a crossword puzzle book anymore either, logic-based activities are readily available on the latest forms of technology and are found on multiple free phone apps and websites. You can train your brain today without ever leaving your chair.
Many experts believe that having an active social life, even well into your senior years, can contribute to better brain health. Consider joining a local group of your interest and try to spend a lot of time with family (especially younger generations) and friends. Opportunities, like volunteering or working part-time, can also introduce you to new skills and groups of people as well. Embrace social media if possible, keeping in touch with long-lost contacts via Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat promotes a sense of social connection too.
Take Care Of Your Body
Keeping your body healthy can also keep your brain healthy. Take part in the as much cardiovascular exercise as possible. Studies are beginning to show that heart disease health risks such as obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes, have a significant impact on cognitive health too. Doctors recommend a diet that is high in fruits and vegetables and low in excess fat and sodium. Evidence also shows that getting regular sleep, cutting out smoking, and taking care of your mental health prove beneficial to the brain as well.
As you can see, there are plenty of ways to "use" your brain, before you "lose" its power. Just like when working out our physical body, the more time dedicated to building your brain, the longer it will last and the more efficient it will be. Scientists have learned that it is never too late to teach our brain new tricks, and with important benefits like cognitive decline prevention, "using" our brains has never been more important. Take advantage of all the great opportunities available that keep your brain "young." If you want to know more about neuroplasticity, or how you can improve the health of your brain, contact a professional at Betterhelp today