You hear a lot of advertising for health-related products claiming they can help “improve cognitive function.” But what, exactly, is cognitive function? Why are cognitive skills important, and what happens if they deteriorate? What can you do to help keep that deterioration from happening?
It’s time for a lesson in…
Cognitive Function 101
Your brain is always working, whether you realize it or not. Even though your body sleeps, your brain never does. It’s processing, remembering, and organizing on a 24/7 basis.1 But, as you go about your daily life, you barely notice.
All these activities of the brain are a part of cognitive function.
In a nutshell, cognitive function is what’s commonly referred to as “thinking.”
It involves cognitive skills, including:
- Motor skills
- Problem-solving 2
As soon as you get up in the morning, your cognitive skills kick into gear. You start thinking about the tasks you need to complete, and the order in which you’ll complete them. This is just one small example of cognitive function. Keeping your cognitive skills sharp is key to being able to carry out those tasks, no matter how simple or complex they may be.
Whether you realize it or not, you put a lot of cognitive skills to work when doing something as basic as answering your phone. When you hear the ringtone, that’s perception at work. When you see the number, you make a decision whether or not to answer the call. You put your motor skills to work when you pick the phone up, and then, you use your language skills to talk to the person on the other end. When you interact with that person and interpret what they say, you’re using your social skills.
A critically important part of cognitive function is known as “executive function.” Think of your body as a business and the brain as its CEO, or chief executive officer. Executive function refers to some of the higher-level cognitive skills you use to make sure your life runs smoothly and efficiently. These skills help you organize your plans, and then put those plans into action.3
Visuospatial skills are also vital to your ability to function. They help your brain perceive what you see. One visuospatial skill, for example, is being able to recognize your favorite brand of juice on a grocery store aisle. You use visuospatial skills to interpret words you read in a book, or on a computer screen. In fact, you’re using these skills right now.4
How Do Cognitive Disorders Occur?
Cognitive function can be disrupted in several different ways. One of the most common is through the aging process. As you get older, nerve cells in your brain called neurons die, and your brain doesn’t do a good job of replacing them.5 But age isn’t the only reason that cognitive skills can decline. Brain injuries, for example, can damage cognitive function and even result in a change in personality.6
Seven Ways to Improve Cognitive Function
Protecting your cognitive skills is one of the most important things you can do to help ensure you’re able to function at your best as the years go by. Here are just a few ways you can keep yourself sharp:
1. Stay Active
Researchers believe that staying physically active can benefit cognitive function. According to one study, your body increases its production of certain hormones during exercise that can help improve your memory.7
Strength exercises may be particularly effective in helping improve cognitive skills. A study involving a group of elderly women who underwent a strength training program for three months showed major benefits. Not only did the women show improved levels of strength, flexibility, and balance, they also showed increased cognitive performance.8
2. Increase Your Intake of Nootropics
Nootropics are compounds that help increase cognitive function. You’ll find them in many supplements that are available either online or in health food stores. These compounds are designed to help improve functions such as memory, perception, creativity, and attention.9
3. Keep Your Mind Open
The old saying, “you’re never too old to learn” may also apply to maintaining your cognitive skills as you get older. One study showed that taking on demanding challenges and staying active socially can help people stay sharp as they age. The types of challenges tested in the study included learning digital photography, as well as how to use photo editing software. However, the same study showed that mildly demanding activities, such as completing word puzzles, don’t provide significant benefits when it comes to cognitive function.10
4. Read, Read, Read
Staying curious at any age could help play a role in protecting your cognitive skills. A study showed that participating in activities that stimulate the brain, such as reading novels, could improve brain function.11
5. Get Quality Sleep
If the quality of your sleep is poor, that could lead to an erosion of cognitive skills, including executive function and memory. Research indicates that disturbances during sleep could be linked to damaging physical changes in your brain.12
6. Lower Your Stress Level
Scientists believe that chronic stress can result in changes to the structure of your brain. These changes, in turn, can lead to a decline in cognitive function. If your brain produces too much cortisol – known as the “stress hormone” – it may result in a sustained “fight-or-flight” state. This damages the connection between the rest of your brain and the area known as the prefrontal cortex, leading to a decreased ability to learn and memorize.13
Researchers conducted a separate study to investigate the potential connection between meditation and improved cognitive function. They found that the stress reduction associated with meditating could play a key role in helping to slow the progression of cognitive disorders.14
7. Stay Social
There is evidence that experiencing feelings of isolation could result in cognitive decline. Researchers have found that it can increase production of cortisol, disrupt sleep patterns, and increase feelings of depression. All of these problems help to contribute to a reduction in brain function.15
The Last Word
As you can see, it’s very important to keep your cognitive function working as efficiently as possible, for as long as possible. The things you take for granted now – such as being able to learn, memorize, and communicate – might not be as easy when you get older. Understanding why your cognitive skills are so critical can help you take the steps needed to preserve them.