Cognitive functioning affects how people think and their ability to remember things. Impairment in this area of brain health may cause a decline in how someone responds to their environment mentally and physically.

Cognitive functioning or cognition is about how the brain works and manifests as behavior.

It is an important part of maintaining day-to-day life and brain activities. It governs thoughts, actions, and how people learn and pay attention to things in their environment.

This article examines cognitive functioning, how the brain works, typical function versus cognitive decline, mild impairment, dementia, and ways to improve cognitive function.

person at homeShare on Pinterest
Roos Koole/Getty Images

Cognitive functioning refers to the ability to think, learn, and remember things.

Research from 2023 describes cognition as the mental process of:

  • acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought and senses
  • paying attention
  • learning through memory
  • decision-making
  • planning
  • reasoning
  • making judgments
  • speaking
  • being aware of the surroundings

The brain is one of the hardest-working organs and automatically works when functioning correctly.

Cognitive function is just one part of a person’s brain health. Other aspects include:

  • Motor function: This determines how people move, maintain balance, and control movements.
  • Emotional function: This is how well a person interprets and responds to emotions.
  • Tactile function: This refers to how people feel and respond to touch sensations.

All areas of the brain work together, but each area has its responsibilities:

  • The upper part of the spinal cord, the brain stem, controls vital functions such as breathing.
  • The cerebellum helps with movement.
  • The upper part of the brain stem controls reflexes and voluntary movements.
  • The forebrain has a left and right hemisphere: the left helps with word formation, and the right helps with reasoning skills.
  • The frontal lobe helps with short-term memory storage.
  • The motor cortex in each frontal lobe helps plan movement.
  • The parietal lobe behind the frontal lobe supports reading.
  • The somatosensory cortex helps receive sensory information.
  • The occipital lobe processes images and links to memory.
  • The temporal lobe is responsible for receiving information through the ear.
  • The inner brain helps modify our response to things we perceive in our environment.
  • The hypothalamus governs important functions such as waking up and emotional responses.
  • The hippocampus sends memories to the correct hemisphere.

Read more about the brain and how it works.

Researchers in 2023 suggested that cognitive decline in standard aging tends to be mild and may only require behavioral and supportive treatment.

However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) refers to subjective cognitive decline as the self-reported worsening of memory loss or more frequent confusion over 12 months. The CDC suggests this is not a standard part of the aging process.

Research from 2020 links cognitive decline with gradual impairments in older adults’ everyday lives. The rate of cognitive decline differs throughout adulthood.

The CDC suggests people with cognitive decline may be unable to:

  • to care for themselves
  • perform routine tasks
  • manage medical conditions
  • manage personal finances

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is the initial stage of memory or cognitive ability loss. It may cause people to start forgetting things or experience lapses in thinking skills.

MCI causes noticeable cognitive changes in the affected person and those around them, but it does not impair their ability to perform daily activities.

Research from 2023 also refers to cognitive impairment as a cognitive deficit, which can be mild or severe. This deficit may not necessarily link to any particular disease, but it may also be one of the early signs. Sometimes, it may be only in the short-term or a progressive impairment.

The National Institute on Aging estimates that 10 to 20% of people with MCI who are 65 years and above go on to develop dementia within 1 year. However, in many cases, the symptoms of MCI remain stable over time.

People experiencing cognitive changes must seek medical advice for prompt diagnosis and treatment. Doctors will reevaluate a person’s symptoms every 6 months to determine if they have progressed.

Severe levels of impairment are what doctors usually refer to as dementia.

Dementia affects cognitive functioning, alters personality, and impedes behavioral abilities. This may mean that a person cannot independently perform tasks essential to daily life.

Dementia is not a natural part of the aging process. It results from damage to nerve cells in the brain.

Types of dementia include:

Most types of dementia are not genetic, and there may be other lifestyle and age-related factors that cause them.

Research links the following steps with improving cognitive health:

A 2020 study found that cognitive decline is nearly twice as common among physically inactive adults as among physically active people.

Research from 2020 also discusses methods involving medication to improve cognition in the aging brain. Possible examples include cholinesterase inhibitors and memantine. A person or their family needs to consult a doctor for the safety and risks of drug treatments.

Non-pharmaceutical options may also include:

  • cognitive interventions, such as cognitive training, stimulation, and rehabilitation
  • noninvasive brain stimulation, such as transcranial electrical stimulation and transcranial magnetic stimulation
  • dietary changes
  • dance and exercise therapies

The research concludes that combining various treatments could be effective for a complex disorder such as cognitive impairment.

Cognitive functioning refers to a person’s thought processes and ways of learning and remembering. However, cognitive function is just one part of how a brain works. Other aspects include motor and emotional functions.

A degree of cognitive decline in aging is generally typical, but more serious cases may lead to impairments in everyday functions.

Mild cognitive impairment causes noticeable changes in cognitive functioning but does not impair their ability to perform vital daily activities. The impairment may also remain stable or become more severe over time.

In more severe cases, a person may develop dementia. This affects a person’s cognition and alters personality and behavioral abilities.

Lifestyle changes include frequent exercise, a balanced diet, physical and mental health care, and getting enough sleep to improve cognitive function. Various drug-based treatments may also improve cognition. Cognitive training rehabilitation or noninvasive brain stimulation are alternative non-drug treatments.