A cognitive impairment is a change in the way the brain works. “Cognitive” means thinking and remembering. Some cognitive impairments include:
- Mild cognitive impairment (MCI)
- Alzheimer’s disease
A cognitive impairment can cause symptoms like:
- Not remembering things as easily as in the past
- Forgetting words and having trouble focusing on tasks
- Memory loss
- Losing things or misplacing them
- Mood and personality changes
- Increased anxiety or aggression
MCI might get worse over time, or it might stay the same. However, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are degenerative diseases, which means they get worse over time. As these diseases progress, symptoms become more severe, including:
- Increased memory loss and confusion
- Shortened attention span
- Problems recognizing family and friends
- Hallucinations, delusions, and paranoia
Everyone has trouble remembering things at times, but for people with MCI, memory changes happen often enough that others notice, and they show up on doctors’ tests. Visit a doctor for testing if you or your family notices changes in the way you think or remember.
Cognitive care is a set of procedures and treatments used to diagnose, monitor, and treat cognitive impairments. It also includes a number of lifestyle approaches and self-care strategies that can be used to keep the brain healthy throughout life, especially as one gets older. MCI is common in older adults and can be an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.
If your doctor thinks that you might have a cognitive impairment, they will recommend screening tests that can look for signs of diseases like MCI, Alzheimer's, or dementia. These tests can include:
- Neurological tests. Cognitive impairments might affect your balance, senses, reflexes, and vision. Neurological tests look for problems in these systems.
- Cognitive and neuropsychological tests. These tests measure how well you remember things, solve problems, and pay attention.
- Laboratory tests. Blood and urine tests can help rule out other conditions that could be causing your symptoms.
- Brain scans. CT scans, MRIs, and PET scans are used to take pictures of your brain and look for areas that aren’t working well or show signs of disease.
Cognitive care procedures are usually very low-risk. Some scanning procedures, like CT scans, use radiation to take pictures of your brain. This radiation can very slightly increase your chance of developing cancer, but most doctors agree that the benefit of testing outweighs this small risk.
Self-care activities are also low risk and are often a basic part of healthy living, like a nutritious diet and regular exercise.
Some types of cognitive care, like vitamins and supplements, might cause problems, especially if one has other conditions or takes medicines that interact with these supplements.Tell your doctor about all the medicines you are on, including over-the-counter medicines, supplements, inhalers, liquid medicines, and patches.
There are many benefits to cognitive care. Since diseases like Alzheimer’s disease and dementia get worse over time, early detection of these conditions can give the doctor and cognitive care team more time to manage symptoms and slow down the disease impacts.Whether or not you have any symptoms of a cognitive impairment, cognitive care can help your brain stay mentally and physically healthy as you get older.
Basic cognitive care techniques like improving your diet, exercising, and getting more mental stimulation, don’t require any special preparation. You can just work them into your daily life.
Other approaches, like taking vitamins or supplements, should be done under a doctor’s care, and you should prepare for any possible side effects, even though these are usually minor.
Screening and testing may require different kinds of preparation. For instance:
- Avoid eating and drinking. Sometimes, eating and drinking can interfere with test results or can increase the risk of nausea during a procedure.
- Contrast fluid. Your doctor might have you drink a contrast fluid, which is a dye that helps scanning machines take pictures of the inside of your body.
Cognitive care refers to a wide variety of treatments and techniques that are done in different ways.
Screening and Monitoring
Tests like CT scans, MRIs, and neuropsychological evaluations can diagnose cognitive impairments and keep track of how your impairment is progressing or changing over time. Some tests only take a few minutes, while others, such as a neuropsychological evaluation, might take several hours.
You will need to schedule an appointment for most of these tests, which can be done in your doctor’s office or a hospital.
Cognitive testing usually doesn’t hurt, but the test might be uncomfortable or might make you tired. You should talk to your doctor about what to expect.
Studies show that cognitive decline can be caused by health factors like obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. To prevent these problems, you should:
- Eat a healthy diet. A diet with a lot of fruits and vegetables and whole grains can help you maintain a healthy body weight and reduce your risk for problems like heart attack, heart disease, and stroke. You should also avoid trans fats, which are man-made fats that are linked to many health problems including cognitive impairments.
- Talk to your doctor about supplements. Some supplements, like omega-3 fatty acids, might help keep your brain healthy and allow you to keep more of your cognitive function as you age. You should talk to your doctor about supplements like these, as well as any other options that might help.
- Exercise. Exercise can help you maintain a healthy body weight, and it is also good for your brain because it supports blood flow and lowers your chance of certain diseases.
Stimulating Your Brain
In addition to being physically active, you should try to stimulate your brain with social and mental activities, including:
- Socializing. Doing things with other people can help stimulate your brain. Even something like having lunch with a friend is a good opportunity to think and stay mentally active. Volunteering is a great way to socialize, while clubs for sports and hobbies can help you meet people.
- Challenging yourself. It’s important to keep your brain strong and active. One of the best ways to do this is to challenge yourself by taking a class, learning something new, or starting a hobby that takes mental energy to do, like puzzles or games.
Testing and Screening
If you’re having a test or screening to diagnose or track a cognitive impairment, you might get results right away, or you might need to wait, depending on these factors:
- If your doctor does an imaging test in their office, they might be able to look at the pictures and talk to you about them right away.
- Blood and urine tests usually need to be sent to a lab for analysis, which can take anywhere from a few days to a couple weeks.
- Sometimes, test results can be complicated, or a test will need to be run again. In this case, it will take longer to get results.
Lifestyle strategies that support personal cognitive health are continual processes, so you might not notice big changes right away. Over months and years, doing these activities and techniques can help you stay aware as you get older and might help slow down degenerative illnesses like Alzheimer’s, dementia, or other cognitive disorders.If you think that your current cognitive care approach is not working, you should talk to your doctor or neurologist about different techniques you can try that might have better results.
Cognitive care is an ongoing process. Many of the things your doctor or neurologist recommends should be done on a regular basis, daily or weekly. If you have a degenerative disease like Alzheimer’s or dementia, your doctor might have you come in for regular checkups and tests to see how the disease is progressing.If you notice that your cognitive ability is changing or getting worse, you should talk to your doctor as soon as you can so that they can recommend different or additional cognitive care techniques that might work better.