What The Phrase "Use It Or Lose It" Means In Neuropsychology

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated May 2, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Neuroplasticity is the ability of the central nervous system to form and reorganize neural connections in response to injury or a learning event. This trait allows the human brain to adapt and change depending on events or experiences. Human brains can adapt through learning when an individual practices a task repeatedly. However, if they do not follow through with this repetition, this adaptive ability is lost, and they lose these possible new neural pathways until they return to the practice. This phenomenon is often referred to as the central nervous system's "use it or lose it" insurance policy. 

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 hope that one day, brain plasticity exercises can be used as a treatment for these conditions. Understanding the connection between neurogenerative diseases and a healthy brain and how brain plasticity exercises can improve symptoms of these disorders can be beneficial for reducing the risk of early onset. 

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What is dementia?

Dementia is a syndrome that occurs due to a brain disease that impairs cognitive functioning. Dementia may manifest as foggy thinking, difficulty making decisions, inability to control emotions, and trouble with memory. It often occurs in older adults over 45 and may result from damage to brain cells.

Dementia is not a mental illness, as it is a neurological condition that occurs in the brain's neurons. Physically, the brain can move essential functions from one damaged area to another and change its structure in response to new experiences. When you offer your brain new skills and store ever-changing information, you are partaking in neuroplasticity by building and forming new connections, keeping your brain healthy. However, dementia can intercept these processes and cause cognitive difficulties. 

Dementia can be scary, frustrating, and difficult for those who live with it. As the condition progresses, memory problems become more frequent, and individuals can forget loved ones, neglect their self-care, and miss financial obligations. Decreased communication skills and poor judgment may 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 that results when abnormal protein clumps form in the brain's cortex. 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.

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What is Alzheimer's disease?

According to the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC),  Alzheimer's affects roughly 6.5 million Americans and is currently the 5th most common cause of death in the United States. This disease is a form of dementia that gradually wears the brain away and is often seen in individuals 65 years and older. Certain risk factors for Alzheimer's may include genetics, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and traumatic brain injury (TBI). 

There is no cure for Alzheimer's, and symptoms often progress over the remainder of one's life. The disease may begin subtly with short-term memory loss. Over time, the individual may experience problems with focus, confusion, trouble remembering where they are or who they are talking to, disorientation, bouts of anger, anxiety, 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 older adults participate in mentally engaging activities, like reading and playing games, they improve the density of white matter in their brains. White matter in the brain is responsible for transmitting information, so increasing your white matter can help you increase your cognitive ability. Konstantinos Arfanakis, the study's author, concluded that, with the brain, "if you don't use it, you lose it."
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The “use it or lose it” principle

Without repetition, however, these changes may not be permanent. In the same way an under-utilized muscle can become weak, the failure to engage in a particular activity can weaken the associated neural pathways. This phenomenon is often referred to as the "use it or lose it" principle. 

Consider, for example, a person who learned a new language in school or university. They may have reached a level of proficiency or even fluency, where they were able to understand and converse with native speakers. Over time, however, a lack of exposure to that language can cause the brain to lose some of those connections, leading to a decline in proficiency. This phenomenon, known as "language attrition," exemplifies the "use it or lose it" principle.

However, the “use it or lose it” phenomenon does not only apply to discrete skills like speaking a language. The principles of neuroplasticity underscores a broader implication for overall brain health and cognitive resilience. Regular engagement in mentally stimulating activities harnesses neuroplasticity to strengthen cognitive functions, which can play a crucial role in delaying or mitigating the onset of cognitive decline.

Ways to train your brain

There are many ways to keep the brain healthy. The following suggestions are techniques to try when you want to exercise your brain.

Learn something new

Formal education is one of the best ways to keep your brain healthy. Learning a new language, taking a few classes at your local community college, or trying a new activity may help you build new neural pathways and reduce your risk of age-related mental decline. Spend time pursuing a new area of interest or learn more about a skill or concept you already know. 

Play an instrument

Like formal education, playing an instrument may help you build new neural pathways. 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 can help you improve your ability to multi-task, solve problems, and ground yourself.

Many people think learning a new instrument is an expensive endeavor, but you do not necessarily need to shell out money for a new piano or guitar. 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. You can also learn to sing; many cities have choirs or singing groups you can join. 

Read a book

Reading stimulates your brain. Interpreting words on a page can take a lot of mental skill. For example, your temporal lobe allows you to recognize words and sounds, while your frontal lobe is responsible for reading fluency and comprehension. All reading can benefit the brain, but sticking with new, complex, or educational information may give you a mental workout.

Brain teasers

Logic games and puzzles are often valuable resources for building cognition. Activities like these work many parts of the brain, including those responsible for memory, decision-making, and problem-solving. You can try logic activities from home if you don't have a traditional chessboard or a crossword puzzle book. You may be able to find logic-based activities on the app store on your phone or online.  

Stay social

Many experts believe that having an active social life can improve brain health for all ages. Consider joining a local group of your interest and try to spend quality time with family and friends. Opportunities like volunteering or working part-time can also introduce you to new skills and groups of people. If you struggle to meet people in person, you can use social media to keep in touch with others or join social groups. 

Take care of your body

Keeping your body healthy can keep your brain healthy. Take part in as much cardiovascular exercise as possible. Studies have revealed that heart disease health risks such as high blood pressure and diabetes may also significantly impact cognitive health. Doctors recommend a diet 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 can benefit the brain.

Counseling options 

If you're experiencing memory or cognitive challenges or want to increase your neuroplasticity, working with a counselor is one way to do so. In addition, you don't have to leave home to see a therapist. Many individuals connect with therapists from home by using online therapy platforms like BetterHelp. 

Recent research shows that online therapy platforms can benefit those with various mental health challenges, including those leading to decreased cognitive functioning, such as depression or anxiety. In a comprehensive report published in the Cureus Journal of Medical Science, researchers evaluated the efficacy of online cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for managing symptoms of varied psychiatric disorders. The study outlines several points supporting online counseling, including its cost-effectiveness and overall efficacy, concluding that online therapy is an effective form of treatment. 

When you sign up for an online therapy platform, you can receive personalized guidance from a therapist matched to you. In addition, you can receive worksheets and resources to help you increase your neuroplasticity from home. When you sign up, you can choose between phone, video, or live chat sessions with your therapist.

Counselor reviews

“Paula is wonderful. She has been here for me since day one, and I feel like she truly is in my corner. She is patient, and kind, and is excellent at dealing with chronic trauma and PTSD. She teaches me how my brain works, how I can deal with my emotions (and that it's okay to have them!), and she is helping me process the things that happened to me. She had good insights, and levels with me very well.” 

“Lisa was just an incredible person to work with. I work in the health care industry and was feeling like I was going to lose my mind with the COVID-19 virus first and second wave, she was just the best person for me during this time. She guides you on how to work with your feelings and grow from them, how to work out your brain and how you can train your thoughts to make life a little bit more manageable each day. I was suffering from crippling anxiety (that eventually turned into physical symptoms), panic attacks, depression, and fatigue from work/COVID. She listens to you and reflects with you about how these situations are hard and that you have every right to these feelings. She also would provide a different perspective that would just help bring you back down to earth and reminds you that you are human, and we can all grow from every hard situation and scenario. I thoroughly enjoyed working with Lisa and will always be grateful to her for the new perspective on life, and all the new tools I have to help manage life which has made me feel like a better person. Thank you, Lisa! I hope to reconnect with you soon!” 


There are several ways to "use" your brain before you "lose" its ability. Like when working out your physical body, the more time dedicated to building your brain, the longer it may last and the more efficient it may be. It is never too late to learn new brain "tricks," and talking to a therapist is one way to do so. If you want to know more about neuroplasticity or how you can improve the health of your brain, contact a professional for further guidance.
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