Use It or Lose It: Intellectual Exercise Can Save Your Mind

Use It or Lose It: Intellectual Exercise Can Save Your Mind

The mind can atrophy, like the muscles, if it is not used. Atrophy of the mental muscles is the penalty that we pay for not taking mental exercise. And this is a terrible penalty, for there is evidence that atrophy of the mind is a mortal disease.

— Mortimer J. Adler1

Mortimer Jerome Adler (1902–2001), one of my intellectual heroes, was a philosopher, educator, writer, and editor of the Encyclopædia Britannica series Great Books of the Western World. It’s no wonder, then, that he was broadly educated and one of the best read persons of the twentieth century. Even up to the time of his death at age 98, it appears that he retained his intellectual prowess—no doubt through the sort of mental exercise he encouraged others to practice.2

Medical science substantiates Adler’s warning regarding the necessity of cognitive exercise in preventing mental atrophy. For example, a recent Mayo Clinic study found that “Lifetime intellectual enrichment might delay the onset of cognitive impairment and be used as a successful preventive intervention to reduce the impending dementia epidemic.”3

In a report on the Mayo Clinic study, Pacific Standard writer Tom Jacobs asks, “For most of us, avoiding cognitive impairment—or at least holding it off as long as possible—eventually becomes a high-priority concern. So what can we do to keep sharp as we grow older?” He observes, “The best medicine is living a life of the mind.”4

But how do we sufficiently challenge ourselves in order to get the great brain-mind benefits offered in the pursuit of the life of the mind? Online brain training sites like seek to help people achieve this preventive maintenance through challenging games and puzzles. Let me offer three additional suggestions.

  1. Reading the classic literature of Western civilization.5
  2. Learning a new language or brushing up on languages previously studied.
  3. Learning to play a musical instrument.

A sharp intellect is its own reward. But now we can add a longer and more enriched life to the list of great benefits that stem from rigorously pursuing the life of the mind.

  1. Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren, How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972), 345. This book revolutionized my entire approach to reading.
  2. I had a joyous email exchange with Adler via one of his associates near the end of his life.
  3. Vemuri et al., “Association of Lifetime Intellectual Enrichment with Cognitive Decline in the Older Population,” JAMA Neurology 71 (August 1, 2014): 1017–24.
  4. Tom Jacobs, “A Lifetime of Intellectual Stimulation Staves Off Dementia,” Pacific Standard, posted June 23, 2014,
  5. A good place to start is with the works catalogued in Great Books of the Western World. Adler and Van Doren also include a recommended reading list in appendix A of How to Read a Book.