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What is Cognitive Health?

Page-3-Picture-(1).gifCognitive health has not always been seen as an important factor of overall health and wellbeing of a person. The distinction between the mind and body was a concept first formally set forth in the seventeenth century by philosopher Rene Descartes. However, during the following several centuries, the body was seen as the concern of physicians, while the mind was connected to organized religion.1   In time, our understanding of “body and mind” has evolved significantly. We now recognize the vital role that both physical health and mental health play in shaping our overall well being, and we appreciate the valuable contributions that a wide array of health professions can make toward assuring that well-being.

Mental health encompasses emotional functioning and the ability to think, reason, and remember (cognitive functioning). While standardized, widely accepted definitions of cognitive health have yet to be adopted, most experts agree that the components of healthy cognitive functioning include:

  • language
  • thought
  • memory
  • executive function (the ability to plan and carry out tasks)
  • judgment
  • attention
  • perception
  • remembered skills (such as driving)
  • ability to live a purposeful life2

Much like physical health, cognitive health can be viewed along a continuum—from optimal functioning to mild cognitive impairment to severe dementia. It is not simply the absence of diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease; rather, it should be respected for its multidimensional nature, and the changes that take place over the life span should be accepted, even embraced, as a natural part of the aging process. 

Cognitive decline can range from mild cognitive impairment to dementia, but these two conditions are not necessarily manifestations of the same disease. Many people never develop any serious decline in their cognitive performance, and those who develop mild cognitive problems do not necessarily develop dementia. Although not all people with cognitive decline develop dementia, those with an amnestic form of mild cognitive impairment do have a much higher risk for dementia than other adults. 

The lack of cognitive health can have profound implications for a person’s physical health. Older adults and others experiencing cognitive impairment may be unable to care for themselves or to engage in necessary activities of daily living, such as preparing meals or managing their finances. Limitations in the ability to effectively manage medications and existing medical conditions are of particular concern when a person is experiencing cognitive impairment or dementia. 

Source:  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Alzheimer’s Association. The Healthy Brain Initiative: A National Public Health Road Map to Maintaining Cognitive Health: Chicago, IL: Alzheimer’s Association; 2007      

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Inside The Brain:  An Interactive Tour