Cognitive health is a factor in brain health focused on thought, learning and memory.(1)
Just as supporting our physical function and emotional wellbeing to continue enjoying life is important, cognitive function is also integral to everyday activities as it determines how we think, judge, plan, learn, make decisions and recall memories.
The brain has always been an area of fascination for me. Its incredible complexity and ability to adapt make it an attractive organ to study and scientists have yet to uncover many of its mysteries. What science has clearly demonstrated is what we can do to support the health of the brain and cognition. And the good news is, what’s good for the brain is good for the heart and vice versa. Like cuddling two puppies with one hug.
brain tissue has neuroplasticity, that is, the ability of the brain to develop new cells and connections after an injury
There are many factors and conditions that can impact cognition, some of which are interlinked. Dementia is probably the most widely known condition to impact memory and thinking.
For years, the medical establishment didn’t think we could do anything to prevent dementia, or indeed fix other injuries to the brain.
Science has since discovered that there are in fact a number of factors that can help reduce the risk of conditions like dementia.(2) In addition, the most profound finding for me was that the brain tissue has neuroplasticity, that is, the ability of the brain to develop new cells and connections after an injury.(3)
How can we protect Cognitive Health
Over the last few years, the Lancet Group, who publish one of the world’s oldest medical journals, have regularly commissioned a large report published by global experts on “Dementia Prevention, Intervention and Care”.(2)
The most recent 2020 report noted that about 40% of dementia cases could be prevented through addressing modifiable risk factors.
The biggest risk factor for dementia is advancing age, and that’s unfortunately not modifiable.
Family history is another factor, but I am personally determined to maintain my cognitive health despite that.
With so many more modifiable risk factors to consider, at least 12 to be exact, there is so much more we can do to reduce the risk of diseases like dementia in the population.(2)
The factors listed below are based on the dementia risk factor studies from the Lancet Report which were shown to have more impact at certain stages of life.(2) So, it’s never too late to be proactive.
Younger than 45
In those younger than 45, getting a good education was the most important factor for reducing cognitive impairment later on.
Age 45 to 65
In people aged 45 to 65, managing hearing loss by getting hearing tested and managed was listed as the most impactful factor.
Hearing is so important for understanding and socially connecting with the world. Preventing head injuries, preventing and managing high blood pressure and watching the alcohol intake (less than 21 units a week) were also demonstrated to be important in reducing risk of dementia.
Maintaining a healthy weight was the final factor in the mid-age group as a body mass index of more than 30 was a noted risk factor.
In people over 65 years old, stopping smoking and managing depression were two of the most impactful ways to reduce the risk of dementia.
Addressing social isolation, especially if it causes one to feel lonely, is next on the list and is increasingly recognized as a key health and wellbeing risk factor overall.
Keeping physically active is such a key factor for so many conditions as we age, not only cognition. As a result, we need to work a bit harder each year on the cardio exercise as well as the strength-building and multicomponent type exercises.
Preventing and managing diabetes, a condition that impacts blood glucose, can have benefits for brain and body.
Reducing air pollution was the new addition to the risk factor list. It’s a tough one to address as an individual alone.
One wonders if we all, for example, walked or cycled more, chose healthy products made closer to home and with lower environmental impact, could we reduce our part in the air pollution while doing good things for ourselves?
Self-care and Support
All of these factors can be addressed through self-care and with the support of health professionals.
The sooner one starts, the more one can help protect cognitive health, but it’s never too late to make the right changes.
Addressing these factors at any stage of life can have positive impacts for health and wellbeing in general too.
I think finding ways to socially connect with others not only can increase positive emotions but also reduces the risk of chronic health conditions when we can encourage and motivate each other. #doittogether
What else for Cognitive Health?
Two things I am surprised didn’t make it onto the Lancet risk factor list are lack of cognitively stimulating activities and management of stress.
I think that is because it is hard to quantify how much cognitive stimulation or stress management each person needs to prevent a specific condition like dementia.
However, the scientific evidence clearly points to benefits for cognition and preventing cognitive decline by doing intellectual, creative and enjoyable endeavours.
Before Goldster was founded, the team and I worked intensively on therapeutic activities for people living with dementia, published a number of papers on the topic and worked with an extensive network of experts in cognitive health.
In developing our systematic approach to dementia with our Structured Cognitive Intervention Pathway (you can read the paper here), we then recognised the importance of so many of the interventions for all older people, not just those who had started to develop memory concerns.(4)
This history is part of what fuels the development of our systematic approaches to healthy ageing and our latest framework the Systematic Wellness Intervention Pathway for Healthy Ageing.
With cognitive health at the heart of it all, we are delighted as a team to be able to bring so many options of therapeutic activities that can help prevent the impacts of ageing on our bodies, brains and minds. We can’t change the passage of time or our family history, but we can find ways to keep the brain and body activated for as long as possible, together.
Here's to us keeping cognitively healthy!