Do you know how to support your cognitive health and reach your potential at any age? We explore how cognitive function helps your overall health and wellbeing.
Cognitive health is as important to our overall wellbeing as physical health, but is often misunderstood.
Less talked about than our physical health or fitness, yet equally as vital, cognitive health is part of everything we do.
Some of its components include building memories, learning during early childhood, coping with stress and preventing premature brain ageing – perfect examples of how our brain helps us live healthy, happy lives.
To be able to adopt the best strategies to support our cognitive health and achieve our greatest potential at every life stage, we first need to understand what cognitive health is and what can affect it.
Cognitive health essentially means having a healthy brain and body that work in tandem to achieve overall wellness.
While we can more easily recognise good physical health, cognitive wellbeing can be harder to spot. Nevertheless, it’s an essential building block to having great physical, mental and emotional health throughout life.
“Understanding our cognitive health is looking at how the brain and the body interact and work together,” says Rita Princi-Hubbard, clinical psychologist and founder of the Institute for Neuroscience and Education. “Cognitive health covers the way we think, how we feel and what we do.”
Elements of good cognitive health include:
A common misconception is that poor cognitive health only impacts us in later life. It’s true that age-associated issues like forgetfulness or reduced ability to master new tasks, and diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s, are due to cognitive decline, and good cognitive health may indeed help combat the risks associated with these conditions.
"Some of the research shows that exercise and good sleep are two of the best ways to ward off dementia in later life, which is why sleep is such a crucial part of good cognitive health,” says Rita.
However, good cognitive health is relevant at every age. We rely on a fit, active, dynamic brain from early infancy, when we are learning and mastering new skills, through to early, mid and late adulthood, where we need healthy cognition to make and store memories, cope with stressful situations, and retain a sense of purpose and usefulness in our lives and relationships.
Cognitive health refers to the health of our brain, whereas mental health is our psychological or emotional health. However, the two are linked.
Without good cognitive health, we may be more at risk of mental health risks, and struggles with mental health conditions can affect our cognitive wellbeing.
“It’s important to understand that good cognitive health isn’t simply an absence of poor mental health,” says Rita. “However, factors that support good mental health, such as social interaction, feeling safe and secure, a meaningful connection to others, and a feeling of purpose, can influence our cognitive abilities if they aren’t being fulfilled.”
High functioning cognitive abilities can help us work through tricky situations and navigate periods of change and challenge, such as when we’re feeling highly stressed or anxious.
“Our brains encode repetition,” says Rita. “If we go into a situation, such as an exam, public speaking event, or a work meeting, repeatedly thinking “I can’t do this”, then this belief will be programmed into the default mode network areas of the brain. Therefore, whenever we think about being in the situation, we will experience a stress and anxiety response. If we learn how to reprogram the belief in the default mode network, we can change our level of stress and anxiety when the event occurs.”
One of the key ways we can help control and reduce stressful episodes, says Rita, is to use visualisation techniques.
“Visualisation is a great mindfulness tool that can help tackle panic and even phobias. For example, if a person has an exam or public speaking event coming up, I encourage them to visualise the whole episode. So, seeing yourself getting up, getting dressed, walking to school or work, sitting in the seat. Importantly, visualise feeling stressed then practise relaxation strategies in the visualisation too. All of this is like a practice run for the actual event and you’re able to use all five senses to help prepare – so how do you feel, what can you see and hear. By repeating this exercise, you can physically help to calm the brain and prevent that survival, or flight or fight, mode our brain leaps to when it thinks we’re in danger.”
While regular physical activity and mindfulness exercises have shown to be useful in stopping anxiety escalate, there are some common triggers, such as smoking, alcohol, and excessive caffeine, that can exacerbate stress and should be avoided.
A family history of anxiety and depression can also be a factor. If feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or disinterest in activities that previously felt joyful persist, speak with your doctor or healthcare professional.
Sleep might be a time we rest and recuperate our bodies, but it’s an important part of the day for our brains as well.
Research shows us that good quality sleep is required for healthy cognitive function, including being able to focus and learn, problem-solving and memory-making.
A lack of sleep can cause difficulty concentrating, inability to perform simple tasks, and mood disorders. Furthermore, poor quality sleep has been linked to cognitive decline within conditions such as dementia.
One of the biggest culprits of poor sleep quality may be our exposure to what’s called blue light. While any kind of light can disrupt sleep, blue light, which we see coming from phones and tablets, is thought to suppress melatonin twice as much as any other kind of light. Melatonin is the hormone that tells our bodies it’s time to get tired and go to sleep.
So, if we are on our phone just before trying to sleep, it’s going to be harder to feel sleepy.
If you are having trouble sleeping, try switching off all screens and devices at least two hours before bed, and keeping devices out of the bedroom so you’re not tempted to scroll just before bedtime.
From early infancy and throughout childhood we rely on cognitive health to help us learn, develop new skills, focus on tasks, and retain important information.
Research tells us that without the right stimulation brain development can be permanently damaged. Genetics and environmental factors, such as family, diet, and community, are now considered equal partners in health and development, with nature and nurture both playing crucial roles.
The past two years of pandemic disruption in how children learn may also have implications for their cognitive health in the future.
One study found that two-thirds (67%) of Australians believe the constant changes to learning environments will have a long-term negative impact on children’s cognitive abilities.
These impacts include poor learning outcomes and decreased focus, as well as mental health implications of increased social anxiety.
As parents and caregivers, the earlier we can start to support our children’s cognitive health, the better the outcomes.
One of the key ways to support a child’s early learning and development is through diet. Evidence shows us that certain ingredients found in everyday foods can help boost our brain’s development and support the brain’s ability to learn and retain information.
Equally, certain foods can inhibit brain development and function, says Rita. “Research tells us that sugar may have a similar effect on the brain as alcohol, and caffeine has been linked to higher levels of cortisol in the body, which is the hormone released in times of stress. Stimulants, such as caffeine and high amounts of sugar or processed food may activate a stress response, making it harder for us to focus and concentrate on tasks.”
Good cognitive health in children includes being able to think clearly, focus, pay attention, and stay engaged. Young people cannot do any of these things without the help and support of the people around them.
“Good cognitive function for kids starts at home,” says Rita. “Children need a loving environment where they feel safe and secure. Equally important is good quality sleep. Children who lack focus in the classroom might be seen to be disinterested or disruptive when they are often simply tired because they haven’t slept the night before.”
Modelling healthy behaviour as a parent or carer is how children learn how to take care of their own health says Rita.
“If children see their parents taking a daily walk, going to the gym, eating well, and having regular sleep routines, they are more likely to do the same."
Other strategies to support children’s cognitive health, says Rita, include:
Project of the week – Pick a topic, from space to flags to exotic animals, and use craft and other creative ways to discover new skills and knowledge. Making learning interactive and fun can help keep the brain stimulated.
Tell good stories – Encourage kids to pick one thing at the start of each day they are looking forward to, such as seeing their best friend or going to netball practice – and at the end of the day ask them what their high point was. This bookends the day with positive thinking and intentions.
Keep them interested – Allowing kids to give up too easily on a new sport or activity, can be as detrimental as forcing them to carry on with something they hate. Encourage them to try new things for a term or a school year and experience the feeling of being part of a team and the benefits of a regular routine.
“The best way we can support our children’s cognitive, mental and physical health is by being there, being supportive, and letting them know they aren’t alone,” says Rita.
We rely on good cognitive health, just as we do good physical health, for a variety of fundamental functions and tasks we perform each day.
Cognitive decline is not inevitable. While things like memory loss or difficulty focusing on tasks are associated with ageing, if we support our cognitive health throughout out lives we can slow or even prevent the risks of developing mild or more serious cognitive impairments.
Examples of serious cognitive illness are conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. More mild characterisations of a decline in cognitive function are subjective cognitive decline (SCD) and mild cognitive impairment (MCI). Symptoms of these conditions include memory loss, confusion, and poor judgement. While not considered serious or highly detrimental to quality of life, both can be a precursor to the advent of more serious conditions in later life.
It is therefore important that we support and maintain good cognitive health throughout our life, to help reduce the risk of developing more serious cognitive illness as we age.
There are some simple ways we can support our cognitive health, every day.
Additionally, there are other strategies that will help support cognitive function and health throughout life.
"Make small changes – such as taking a 30-minute walk each day – that are gentle and gradual. Exercising with family or friends can make it fun."
"Having fun actually calms the brain, you release oxytocin and endorphins, which take the brain out of that survival system. It also allows us to manage stress when it does arise and make life a little bit more enjoyable.”
References available upon request.