The previous two articles discussed 1) the impact on cognition after a concussion and 2) cognitive rehabilitation after a concussion, yet there are a few factors to consider when we discuss cognitive health, or brain health.
When it comes to our health and wellbeing, there are many factors that reciprocally interact. We also need to look at cognition holistically. Think back on a time when you were sleep deprived, or sick with a cold, or emotionally overwhelmed. You likely were not thinking as sharply as you usually do. After a concussion there are direct and negative impacts to cognition, due to the diffuse nature of the injury, as discussed in that first article. Yet, there are also secondary impacts to cognition. The purpose of this article is to go beyond concussion and explore the factors that impact cognition more broadly. Let us title this holistic view of cognition – brain health.
We all know the importance of a good night’s sleep the night before an exam, that sleep is the best medicine, and perhaps that sleep may play a role in memory consolidation. Sleep is one of those lifestyle variables that very obviously impacts cognition. Sleep deprivation has been shown to reduce the capacity for attention (focused, sustained, and divided), working memory, long-term memory, processing speed, reaction time, response inhibition, and executive functioning (including logical reasoning, decision making; Alhola & Polo-Kantola, 2007).
In addition, chronic partial sleep deprivation may also lead to reduction in cognitive performance and may contribute to the formation of Alzheimer’s like pathology in the brain (Alhola & Polo-Kantola, 2007; Holth et al., 2019). Therefore, to ensure that your brain is healthy, make sure that you’re getting enough sleep!
If a panacea does exist, it’s surely exercise. We all know how important exercise is to physical and mental health, but exercise also has many benefits on cognition. In meta-analyses looking at the impact of regular aerobic exercise on cognition in adults (Smith et al., 2010) we see improvement in attention, processing speed, memory (although not working memory), and executive functioning. The effect is also present across the lifespan, seen in children (Sibley & Etnier, 2003) and in older adults (Northey, Cherbuin, Pumpa, Smee, & Rattray, 2018).
In a meta-analysis of the effects of acute exercise on cognition, testing during, or immediately after, exercise we see a small positive effect on cognition in general (Chang, Labban, Gapin, & Etnier,., 2012). There are even greater improvements in cognition for individuals with higher fitness levels, after longer periods of exercise, and also most impact on executive functioning. Therefore, a method to improve cognition – is regular exercise.
In summary, to promote cognitive functioning, you need to promote brain health in general. The beauty of it, is that all of this is all common sense. If you’re living a healthy lifestyle, your cognitive functioning, along with your psychological and physical functioning, will also be at it’s peak.