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Health & Nutrition
Dimitar Marinov
Senior Product Researcher MD, PhD, Assistant Professor

Cognitive Function 101

 

There's a lot of talk these days about cognitive function and memory, especially with the aging population. 

It is well known that as you age, it's normal for cognitive function to dwindle. However, not everyone experiences the same level of cognitive decline - some are less affected, while others may develop cognitive impairment.

But what does cognitive impairment mean, exactly? And how can you tell if your cognitive function and memory are normal or not?

This article will explore those questions and more, including what you can do to keep your cognition and memory sharp as you get older.

 

 

 

What is a cognitive function?

 

It is commonly known that the human brain is capable of processing vast amounts of information. What is less understood, however, is the cognitive functions that allow you to do so. 

Scientists define cognitive functions as any process that allows you to think, learn, remember and interact with the world around you [1]

There are different cognitive functions, some of which include memory, personality, creativity, and decision-making. They are also known as high cognitive functions as they allow humans to think and learn at a high level as compared to other species [2]

Cognitive functions are incredibly important because they help you to learn new information, store memories, and make decisions.

For example, your memory allows you to remember important information, while your personality helps you interact with other people. Memory, in particular, also plays a critical role in your ability to learn.

Creativity is another form of high cognitive function, and studies show that it is linked to intelligence, but only up to a certain threshold [3]

Researchers reveal that once you get beyond an IQ of about 120, which is just a little above average, creativity is no longer related to intelligence.

On the other hand, people with higher IQs are not necessarily more creative or gifted. They may have a personality that is more analytical or detail-oriented.

 

 

 

What causes cognitive impairment?

 

 

Most people are familiar with the term "senior moments," when someone momentarily can't remember a name or where they put their keys. While this can be frustrating, it is generally nothing to worry about.

On the other hand, cognitive impairment is a measurable decline in a person's cognitive functions, such as their ability to remember, think and reason [4]

This may involve difficulties with memory, attention, organization, problem-solving skills, understanding language, and performing everyday tasks. 

Cognitive impairment can range from mild to severe, and its causes may include various factors such as aging, stroke, or traumatic brain injury. Researchers report that age is the primary cause of cognitive impairment [5].

Severe cognitive impairment is less common and can also be associated with chronic conditions such as Alzheimer's disease, other forms of dementia, and Parkinson's disease. 

On the other hand, mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is much more common, and it is sometimes the transitional period between normal cognitive decline and dementia.

Studies show that about 10-15% of people with mild cognitive impairment transition to dementia every year [6]. Therefore mild cognitive impairment is often the first sign of Alzheimer's disease or another type of dementia.

Mild cognitive impairment is not as severe as Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia, but it can still interfere with daily life activities. 

Symptoms vary from person to person but may include difficulty remembering recent events, forgetting important items, and decreased mental sharpness [7]. Affected individuals may also have:

  • difficulty remembering names or faces; 
  • problems with planning or organizing; 
  • decreased ability to think abstractly;
  • changes in mood or behavior. 

If you experience any of these symptoms, it is important to see your doctor for a diagnosis.

 

 

 

Can you repair your cognitive function?

 

 

By understanding the causes of cognitive impairment, recognizing its signs and symptoms, and providing an early diagnosis, medical doctors can help reduce the disability associated with cognitive decline [8]

But despite the advances in modern medicine, there is no cure for cognitive impairment at this time. So once your cognitive functions have declined due to a certain medical condition, it's difficult to reverse the process. 

Fortunately, there are treatments available that may help improve the symptoms of cognitive decline. Lifestyle changes and various supplements may also help preserve your cognitive functions and improve your quality of life.

Treatments for cognitive impairment can include:

  • Medication to manage symptoms, including depression or anxiety
  • Cognitive therapy, counseling, and support groups to help with coping
  • Cognitive exercises to improve memory and thinking skills
  • Lifestyle changes

For example, there is a range of cognitive therapy techniques that can be tailored to your individual needs to help with reality orientation and teach you skills for coping with the condition [9].

The goal of treatment is to help improve cognitive function, manage symptoms, and reduce the impact of cognitive decline on daily life. 

Cognitive impairment can significantly impact quality of life, so it is important to seek help early. Early diagnosis and treatment can significantly improve cognitive function and help individuals maintain their independence.

 

 

 

How can you preserve cognitive functions as you age?

 

Age-related cognitive decline is a natural process that slowly begins in your 30s and 40s and remains unnoticeable until much later. But thankfully, there are ways to preserve cognitive function for as long as possible. 

Improving your cognitive function does not necessarily require drastic lifestyle changes if you are a healthy person. In fact, small, manageable changes to your daily routine can have a significant impact on your overall mental performance. 

Here are some tips you can use to improve your cognitive function:

 

Exercise regularly!

 

 

Research shows that regular physical activity boosts brain health and can support the integrity of your brain structures [10]

Six to twelve months of a simple exercise program which included mostly walking, significantly increased spatial memory. Moreover, it improves the gray and white brain matter volumes at different brain regions in healthy older adults.

Studies also show that exercise can help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, which indirectly can improve your cognitive abilities as well [11]. If left untreated, depression and anxiety conditions can have a significant negative effect on cognitive performance.

A growing body of research suggests that regular physical activity may also help to lower your risk of more serious conditions that can lead to cognitive decline, such as Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia [12]

The scientists reported that any type of physical activity was effective, and the higher the weekly volume - the lower the risk of dementia and cognitive decline.

 

 

Eat a healthy diet!

 

 

Eating a balanced diet full of fruits and vegetables is important for overall health and wellness, but it is also necessary to keep your brain working at its best. That's because they are great sources of vitamins, polyphenols, and other antioxidants that help reduce oxidative stress in the brain [13].

Furthermore, the polyphenols, as well as the nitrates found in vegetables, have vasodilatory effects, which help increase the blood flow to the brain, and therefore improve cognitive performance [14].

In addition to fruits and vegetables, you should also focus on foods rich in antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, and other important nutrients that will help your brain stay alert and active as you age. These include whole grains, fatty fish, nuts, seeds, and eggs.

 

 

Get plenty of sleep!

 

 

Sleep is essential for a healthy mind and body, so make sure you get the recommended 7-8 hours each night. Studies show that even short-term sleep loss can temporarily impair cognitive function and cause negative mood changes [15].

Furthermore, long-term sleep deprivation can even increase the risk of developing medical conditions such as dementia. 

According to a meta-analysis of 18 studies, those who had sleeping problems were at a 20% higher risk of dementia, while insomnia, in particular, increased the risk of Alzheimer's by more than 50% [16].

Having enough sleep will make you feel more rested and also help your brain consolidate memories, process information, and even regulate your hormones. You can improve your sleep by following these simple tips:

  • go to bed at a regular time every night
  • avoid heavy meals at least 3 hours before bedtime
  • avoid any screens emitting blue light for at least 2-3 hours before bedtime
  • if avoiding screens is impossible, make sure to install a blue-light filter
  • get exposure to direct sunlight in the morning
  • avoid caffeine intake in any form for at least 8 hours before bedtime

 

 

Take supplements that work!

 

 

While more research is needed to confirm these findings, they suggest that supplements may play an important role in maintaining cognitive health as you age.

For example, several studies report that phosphatidylserine, a natural compound found in brain tissue, soy lecithin, and fish oil, can significantly improve memory in healthy older adults and those suffering from Alzheimer's [17], [18].

Supplementation works by replenishing the levels of phosphatidylserine in the human brain, which is important for the membranes of brain cells.

Another supplement with the potential for supporting brain function and reducing cognitive decline is Alpha-GPC. This is a phospholipid that plays an important role in supporting the membranes of brain cells but also increases the synthesis of acetylcholine in the body which is a neurotransmitter involved in memory and attention.

Studies have shown that alpha-GPC supplementation can significantly improve a range of cognitive parameters, including memory, attention, and problem-solving skills, even in older adults suffering from mild to moderate dementia [19].

Certain plant extracts, such as the nootropic herb Bacopa monnieri (as found in our Adaptozen Superfood Greens), can have a complex effect on cognitive functions, primarily for memory. 

It works by reducing the oxidative stress in the brain, interacting with neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, and stimulating the growth of dendrites, the "appendages" that allow brain cells to form new connections. 

A systematic review of 6 clinical studies shows that supplementation with bacopa can dramatically improve memory amongst healthy older adults [20]. The scientists concluded that although the research is still in its infancy, it appears promising regarding the benefits of Bacopa monnieri for cognition.

 

 

 

Take-Away Message

 

While there are no magic bullets to ward off age-related decline or dementia, there are many things you can do to support your brain health and improve your cognitive functions. 

If you're looking for ways to boost your brainpower, start by making some simple changes to your diet and lifestyle. 

Add some brain-healthy foods to your menu, get enough quality sleep each night, make sure you're getting regular exercise, and consider taking a supplement with proven ingredients. These simple steps can keep your mind sharp and functioning at its best!

 

Note: This article is for informational purposes only and not intended for use as medical advice. Always consult your healthcare provider before starting any dietary supplement.

 

 

Dimitar Marinov
Senior Product Researcher MD, PhD, Assistant Professor
Dr. Marinov is a licenced physician and scientist with years of experience in clinical and preventive medicine, medical research, nutrition and dietetics. His research is focused primarily on nutrition and physical activity as preventive measures to improve and preserve human health. He is passionate about creating evidence-based content about various medical topics and takes great care in referencing every statement with high-quality evidence.
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