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Hello Brain • Brain Health
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Let’s think…about cognitive function

Let’s think…about cognitive function

Every day your cognitive function allows you to go about your business seamlessly – to plan your actions, remember important tasks and details and generally get things done. But what is this thing that scientists call cognitive function? 

Cognition is the general term that science uses to cover many aspects of ‘higher’ brain function such as memory, attention, language, reasoning, thinking, problem-solving, planning and making decisions.

Together, those factors make up your cognitive function, which you rely on to carry out tasks from the habitual – like grocery shopping or grabbing your keys to leave the house – right through to learning a whole new language or solving challenging and brain-twisting problems.

Cognitive function is something that scientists often measure when they carry out studies – by using standard tests to assess it, they can see how cognitive function differs across a group of people. They can also use measurements as a yardstick to assess whether a particular intervention – like an exercise regime or flexing the brain with new tasks – can improve cognitive function over time.

So how does cognitive function alter as we age? Studies suggest that it does change across the lifespan, but it’s not a straightforward curve and the changes in cognitive function do not follow a standard route for everyone.

In fact, research has overturned the old assumption that cognitive function always declines with age and always drops severely in older age. Now a sharp decline in cognitive function is considered to be a sign of disease, infection or an underlying condition.

Some people maintain excellent cognitive function into their final years – celebrity examples include Picasso, who was still painting in his 80s, and Jeanne Calment, who lived until she was 122, and was well able to deliver witty and insightful remarks for decades after the typical life expectancy of a human.

Science is still exploring what promotes healthy cognitive ageing, and so far the research shows that factors such as of education, occupation, being physically active and controlling blood pressure during middle age seem to protect these precious thought processes. Illustration: Cognitive reserve

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