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Education 5 April 2021

Cognitive Health

Written By Karlee Smith

Ivinson speech language pathologist Karlee Smith discusses cognitive functioning and the preventative measures we can all take.

As a speech-language pathologist, part of my job includes supporting changes in my patients’ cognitive functioning. Cognitive functioning refers to skills such as attention, memory, word retrieval, problem solving, planning, and organization. 

Cognitive changes typically occur in individuals who have experienced a stroke, brain injury, or have been diagnosed with a neurological disease like Alzheimer’s. Cognitive changes also occur as a common and normal part of the life cycle. As our bodies physically grow older, age-related changes occur in our brains.

I often work with adults who describe feeling frustrated by difficulty remembering names, explaining ideas, organizing appointments, or keeping track of items around the home. I always recommend seeking speech-language pathology services at the first sign of any cognitive decline. However, the best approach is to take preventative measures to optimize cognitive health at any point across the lifespan. 

Preventative lifestyle changes may delay cognitive decline, or even improve cognitive health. Healthy cognition supports meaningful conversations with loved ones, memory of past or upcoming events, active participation in daily tasks, and the ability to learn a new skill.

There are a number of steps you can take to support your cognitive health. Here are 3 key areas to focus on: 

  1. Lifestyle Changes: if something is good for your body, it’s probably good for your brain! We’ve all heard about the importance of diet, sleep, and exercise to optimize physical health. A well-balanced diet, restful night of sleep, and regular physical activity will also support cognitive health. We store new memories while we sleep, pay better attention when we are well-rested, and strengthen our decision-making ability by avoiding sleep deprivation. Physical activity promotes blood flow throughout the body, which includes blood flow to the brain. From a dietary standpoint, the National Institute on Aging supports consuming fruits & veggies, whole grains, fish, nuts, and seeds. 
  2. Socialization: do your best to remain social and connected to your friends, family, and community. Socialization encourages us to pay attention, formulate thoughts, communicate ideas, and think critically. This strengthens networks between nerves in your brain, and can decrease stress hormones. In countries where communities are more social, cognitive decline is less prevalent and populations tend to live longer. Communicating with others also improves word-finding skills, a common area of difficulty identified by older adults.
  3. Cognitive Activity: just as physical exercise leads to improved muscular strength, engaging in cognitive activity will promote stronger neural pathways in the brain. Reading books, working crossword puzzles, taking a class, planning a vacation itinerary, or calculating the miles you walked throughout the week are all examples of activities that exercise your brain. Learning a new skill is another great way to challenge your brain to stay cognitively active. If you can bundle this with a physical, outdoor hobby, you’ll reap the extra reward of increased blood flow and access to vitamin D. Learn to tie fishing flies, build a garden bed, or research wildlife and take photographs around Laramie!