Your Guide to Cognitive Health Part 1

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Cognitive health is at the core of human well-being and our ability to thrive throughout life. It encompasses our capacity to think clearly, communicate effectively, learn, remember, and adapt to new situations. Maintaining high levels of cognitive performance into old age is possible by investing in our health early on. Proactively taking care of your brain health, keeping mentally stimulated, managing your stress and engaging in daily brain training, especially neurofeedback, can help extend cognitive healthspan the number of years lived with good cognitive function.

At the heart of human wellbeing and our capacity to thrive in life is our Cognitive Health.

Of the domains of health that I teach about, this is the one the majority of people care about most as they enter mid-life. Whilst heart disease remains the number cause of death world-wide and cancer remains a concern for many, it's a deterioration in cognitive health and the possibility of dementia that most people I talk to worry about most.

Whilst some decline in specific cognitive functions does happen with age, if you emerge into your sixties in good health and with a high level of cognitive performance it is absolutely possible to maintain this until the end of your life.

Investing in your health now, pays dividends later.

So, what specifically is cognitive health and why does it matter? What does happen to cognition as age? And, how can you extend your cognitive healthspan, the number of years lived with good cognitive function? How does neurofeedback support cognitive health?

happy healthy seniors

Defining Cognitive Health

A helpful definition of Cognitive Health is the ability to think clearly, communicate effectively, learn, remember, and adapt to new situations. Underlying each of these activities are multiple, interdependent processes involving our brain, biology, mind and environment that enable us to experience and navigate life effectively. If we cease to think or communicate clearly, remember accurately or respond adaptively our ability to survive, and certainly thrive, becomes compromised.

Before you proceed I recommend you re-read the definition of cognitive health once more. As you do so slowly reflect on how each facet of cognitive health is for you currently.

How is the clarity of your thinking?
Your ability to communicate coherently and fluidly?
Your ability to learn, remember and retrieve information?
Your ability to adapt effectively to situations?

What is the trend of these overtime? Are these facets stable, deteriorating and/or improving?

Being honest about reality (what is), is the first step to taking action to improve what is. This is why the process of self-reflection is so important.Now, think back to a time when you had an infection, and your cognition was compromised. Perhaps you had brain fog, difficulty focusing or found it hard to find the right word or speak coherently?

How challenging was it for you to engage life fully and perform at your best? I anticipate most people say it was impossible or really hard and took gargantuan amounts of effort. Fortunately for some this dip in cognitive function is temporary. We emerge from it, feeling grateful to have our cognitive faculties back online.

Now imagine if that mental clarity, ability to communicate and memory don’t return. This is how it is for hundreds of millions of people whose cognitive health is compromised. The underlying reasons why are many and varied. They include, but are not limited to: chronic infections, brain inflammation, sleep deprivation, genetic inheritance, high glucose levels, medication side effects, compromised blood flow, toxicity, trauma, chronic stress, allergies and damage to mitochondria, our biological energy generators. Addressing the underlying causes of low cognitive health is where functional, nutritional and integrative medicine can excel. I cover this here.

cognitive health capacities chart

Cognitive Health is at the heart of what it is to be an independent, effective and engaged human being.

Your ability to relate to others, take care of yourself (and others), manage your financial and work situation and explore all of what life has to offer is dependent on your cognition. Cognitive health requires numerous cognitive capacities to work harmoniously together.

Capacity 1: Reasoning
Includes the ability to think logically, make sound decisions and solve problems. This includes inductive reasoning (drawing general conclusions from specific observations) and deductive reasoning (applying general principles to specific cases). This is what gets trained and prioritized within most educational systems.

Capacity 2: Language
Includes the ability to understand, produce and use language effectively. This covers comprehension, speaking, writing and reading and verbal communication skills, including verbal fluency and vocabulary. The latter can continue to improve with age.

Capacity 3: Attention
The ability to focus whilst ignoring distractions. This covers being able to sustain attention for long periods, selectively attend by tuning out irrelevant/unwanted information and shift attention to manage multiple tasks. In our attention grabbing age, this is a challenge for many people.

Capacity 4: Perception
The process by which our brains interpret sensory information from the environment. This involves recognizing and making sense of visual, auditory, tactile, and other sensory inputs. As we age, perceptual abilities can decline. Vision may deteriorate due to conditions like cataracts or macular degeneration, hearing loss becomes more common, and the sense of touch can diminish.

Capacity 5: Processing Speed
The rate at which we perceive, interpret and respond to information. For most people (not all), their brain's processing speed peaks late teens / early 20’s and tends to decline thereafter. However the rate of decline can be significantly reduced, especially with learning, brain training and cognitive stimulation.

Capacity 6: Memory
The ability to store, retain and recall information. This is the cognitive ability that worries people, especially as it is one of the hallmarks of dementia and its precursor Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI). Short-term memory (STM) is the ability to store a small amount of information (typically around seven items at once) for 20-30 seconds or so. STM typically keeps improving to the age of 25, remains stable to age 35 and starts declining thereafter. In contrast, long-term memory (LTM) which involves storing information over time) and working memory, working with information in real-time, do not necessarily decline over-time.

Capacity 7: Emotional intelligence (EI)
Emotional intelligence can be developed and improved upon throughout a lifetime. At the heart of EI is the ability to recognize, understand, manage and use emotions effectively. Unless you experienced secure attachment to your caregivers and had healthy emotional regulation mirrored back to you, chances are you emerged into adulthood with undeveloped EI.

Capacity 8: Executive Functioning
Involves cognitive processes that regulate and control behavior. These are some of the hallmarks of a maturing and developing brain. They include planning, organizing, initiating tasks, problem-solving, decision-making, flexible thinking and adapting to changing circumstances. At the heart of executive functioning is the ability to monitor and modify your impulses, mindstate (way of being), emotions and behavior.

Keep reading about Cognitive Health

This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of such advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Mark Atkinson or the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content, especially those taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, should consult their physicians before beginning any nutrition, supplement or lifestyle program.


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What Happens to Your Brain as You Age?
7 Ways to Extend Cognitive Healthspan
How Neurofeedback Extends Cognitive Healthspan