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Use it or Lose It - Fact or Fiction?

By Zachary Isaac, Occupational Therapist

The term “Use It or Lose It”, is the golden rule we generally hear from those around us. Friends, family, health and medical professionals have all mentioned this to you at some point in your life, but why? Is there evidence out there that really suggests we can improve our health by remaining active or involved throughout our life? The simple answer is, yes, we can slow down the progression of disease and improve our overall quality of life by following this golden rule.

The brain is responsible for many different functions such as controlling our emotions, how we communicate, interact, move and complete day to day activities. What allows these actions is a small cell called a neuron, which tranports information around the body. Thousands of these cells are generated in the brain every day, however a large percentage of these do not survive. As we get older, less neurons are produced daily and therefore the total amount is much less than when we are young. The good news is that we are able to retain these neurons that generally do not survive, through new experiences and learning opportunities!

A perfect example to refer to is an animal study on rats and neuroplasticity. The study had two groups of rats, one of which were exposed to a standard environment with little motor, cognitive, social and sensory stimulation, and the other group who were exposed to an enriched environment inclusive of all the aforementioned factors. The animal group in the enriched environment showed a significant improvement in their cognitive capacity following ongoing exposure to complex and challenging situations, compared to the group who were not presented any stimulation. Fortunately for humans, we know that exposure to complex learning situations improves the connections in our brain and ultimately assists in reducing/delaying cognitive disease.

So how can we improve our brain function in order to improve our quality of life, and slow or reduce the risk of neurological disease? Some tips below are proven to improve our brain’s capacity to continue developing as we age with it:

  • Remain physically active. Physical activity releases chemicals in the brain that promote growth and survival of neurons. Physical activity can be minimal, moderate or intense. Walking, running, yoga, pilates or playing sports can all contribute towards positive learning experiences for the brain, as well as promote benefits in physical areas of the body as well.
  • Ensure you are getting enough sleep. Sleep is important in all aspects of the body’s health, but more importantly, supports how neurons transport information around the body.
  • Involve yourself in cognitively challenging situations. Neurons can be classified as simple or complex. These complex neurons are generally formed when the task or action being completed has more demanding physical or mentally challenging requirements. In summary, the complex neurons promote a higher cognitive capacity and contributes towards positive brain health as we age. Crossword puzzles, sudoku, building, gardening, painting, playing musical instruments and learning a new language are all ways that can facilitate cognitive stimulation. Watching television does not stimulate the brain in the same way as these tasks, and is a trap that people fall into when spending longer durations at home.
  • Be involved with other people. Not only does being socially active with other people increase cognitive benefits, it also reduces the risk of depression and social isolation. Catching up with family or friends for coffee, heading to the beach or library are some of the ways you can be more socially active.
  • Control what you consume. Diet plays a massive role in cognitive function, as well as physical health. Diets that are high in saturated fats have been linked to memory decline and learning difficulties, where diets that are high in omega 3 and vitamin E have been linked to cognitive benefits.
  • Attempt to cut out stress in your life. Chronic stress has multiple negative impacts on the mental, emotional, physical and cognitive body, and has linkages to significant neurogenerative and physical health diseases. If you are concerned that stress is holding you back, please contact a family member, friend or health professional for further information about how you can cope.

The body, and the brain, are very complex structures that continuously develop and change over our lifetime. Although we are unable to completely avoid the onset of disease, we are able to slow or reduce our likelihood of being exposed to it. The next time you go to use the phrase “Use It or Lose It” and somebody questions that statement, remember, it is backed with decades of scientific evidence!

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