This One Body Part Really Is "Use It or Lose It," Study Shows

A new study shows that ignoring this could lead you to lose functionality.

When you hear the phrase "use it or lose it," you probably think about what it means in terms of your bedroom behavior. But the philosophy actually applies to a different region of your body much further north: your brain. The good news is that it takes very little to exercise this part of your body—and it's free. According to a new study, those who keep socializing see their most vital organ stay stronger than those who isolate. Read on to find out how to keep your brain and social life active, and for more on how to improve your health in your senior years, check out This Is Why Laughter Actually Is The Best Medicine, Doctors Say.

"It's the 'use it or lose it' philosophy when it comes to the brain," lead study author Cynthia Felix, MD, MPH, a geriatrician and a post-doctoral associate in Pitt Public Health's Department of Epidemiology, said in a statement. "Social engagement costs hardly anything, and we do not have to worry about side-effects."

Felix's research, which was published in the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, studied 293 subjects with an average age of 83 years old and compared their levels of social engagement. Using a brain scan known as Diffusion Tensor Imaging MRI, Felix and her team found that study participants who took part in activities such as playing board games, going to the movies, meeting with friends or family once a week, working, volunteering, or living with a spouse or other friend showed more robust gray matter in their brains based on their levels of activity. The study authors concluded that the boost in brain health provided by social stimulation helped keep the brain from atrophying, which leads to dementia once brain cells begin to die. They also pointed out that "moderate doses" of interpersonal interaction were largely beneficial.

Felix said the findings had massive implications for the more immediate state of the world. "Our data were collected before the COVID-19 pandemic, but I believe our findings are particularly important right now, since a one-size-fits-all social isolation of all older adults may place them at risk for conditions such as dementia," she said. "Older adults should know it is important for their brain health that they still seek out social engagement in safe and balanced ways during the pandemic."

But keeping up with your friends isn't the only way to make sure your brain stays healthy as you age. Read on for more simple ways to stay sharp in your later years, and for more on the way your noggin works, check out 23 Facts About Your Brain That Will Blow Your Mind.

Being bilingual

Two students sit behind a small jar of international flags while reading books and studying foreign languages

Parlez-vous français? If so, you might be in better shape to avoid dementia later in life: A team of researchers at Universitat Oberta de Catalunya recently discovered that being bilingual can slash your chances of developing Alzheimer's disease as you age, cutting your risk in half in many cases.

Getting some natural sunlight

older white couple jogging outside
Shutterstock/NDAB Creativity

There's an even better benefit to being outdoors than getting fresh air. According to a 2014 study published in the journal Neurology, adults with low levels of vitamin D—a vitamin bioavailable via sun exposure—had double the risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer's. Just 15 minutes outside a day should be enough to sufficiently boost your vitamin D; don't overdo it as too much sunlight can increase your risk of skin cancer, And for more on what you should look out for regarding your vitamin D levels, check out 20 Symptoms of Vitamin D Deficiency, According to Medical Experts.

Reading more

Older couple happily reading newspaper

Your favorite novel is good for more than keeping you entertained on a rainy day. One 2003 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that individuals who regularly read had a lower risk of dementia.

Listening to music

man listening to music

Just because you're getting older doesn't mean you still can't groove along to your favorite tunes—and in fact, you probably should. A 2016 study out of West Virginia University found that listening to music can improve memory and reduce mental decline among adults with cognitive issues.

Get at least seven hours of sleep a night

Senior black man sleeping well

According to a 2018 study out of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, not getting enough sleep increases your brain's production of beta-amyloid, a protein linked to Alzheimer's disease. The researchers found that just one night of sleep deprivation rose subjects' beta-amyloid levels 5 percent. And for more tips on catching those zzz's, check out Wearing These Just Before Bed Could Help You Sleep, Study Finds.

Brush your teeth

Good dental hygiene is important and healthy

Taking care of your teeth is about more than avoiding dentures later in life. A 2019 study published in the journal Science Advances found that the bacteria that causes gingivitis can migrate from the mouth into the brain and wreak havoc on nerve cells, which makes you more susceptible to Alzheimer's. And for more dental habits that matter, here are 25 Things You're Doing That Would Horrify Your Dentist.

Drink more coffee

woman sitting alone on the couch sipping coffee

A cup of joe might be just the thing to help you lift you out of your morning haze, but it could also be the answer to making sure your brain stays sharp well into your later years. In a 2018 study published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, researchers concluded that cups of both caffeinated and decaffeinated dark roast contained phenylindanes, compounds that block the proteins beta-amyloid and tau that trigger diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. And for more on exactly when you should be pouring yourself that first cup of java, check out This Is the Worst Time to Drink Your Morning Coffee, Study Says.

Eat more mushrooms

winter superfoods shiitake mushrooms

Fungi may not be your favorite food, but it certainly appears to be good for your brain. One 2019 study published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease found that older adults who ate more than two standard portions of mushrooms per week (which is at least 1 ½ cups of mushrooms) were 50 percent less likely to have mild cognitive impairment. And for more indicators of your brain health, How Well You Do This One Thing Predicts Your Alzheimer's Risk, Study Says.

Relax in the sauna

hot guy in sauna

What if you could ward off dementia and get incredibly relaxed in the process? It turns out you might be able to, based on the findings of a 2017 study published in the journal Age and Aging. The researchers found that over the course of 20 years, men who took sauna baths four to seven times a week were 66 percent less likely to develop dementia than those who only scvhitzed once a week. And for more on how your other hygiene habits affect your health, check out You're Showering at the Wrong Time Every Day, Experts Say.

Zachary Mack
Zach is a freelance writer specializing in beer, wine, food, spirits, and travel. He is based in Manhattan. Read more
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