Cognitive function refers to a person’s ability to process thoughts. Cognition primarily refers to things like memory, the ability to learn new information, speech, and reading comprehension. In most healthy individuals the brain is capable of learning new skills in each of these areas, especially in early childhood, and of developing personal and individual thoughts about the world. Factors such as aging and disease may affect cognitive function over time, resulting in issues like memory loss and trouble thinking of the right words while speaking or writing.
Humans are generally equipped with a capacity for cognitive function at birth, meaning that each person is capable of learning or remembering a certain amount of information. This is generally measured using tests like the intelligence quotient (IQ) test, although these can be inaccurate at fully measuring a person’s cognitive abilities. Infanthood and early childhood are the periods of time when most people are best able to absorb and use new information, with most children learning new words, concepts, and ways to express oneself on a weekly or even daily basis. Capacity to learn slows down little by little as one gets older, but overall cognitive function should not deplete on a large scale in healthy individuals.
Certain diseases and conditions may cause a decline in cognition. Multiple sclerosis (MS), for example, can eventually cause memory loss, an inability to grasp new concepts or information, and depleted verbal fluency. Not all patients who suffer from the condition will experience these side effects, and most patients will retain the ability to speak as well as their general intellect.
Some research suggests that it is possible to enhance cognitive function and prevent a natural decline in memory and thought when caused by normal aging. Doing activities such as word problems, memory problems, and mathematics may “exercise” the brain so that fewer cells die or become inactive over time. This can result in a longer period of high-level cognition, and even increase cognitive skills in some individuals. Just like any other muscle in the body, the brain needs regular stimulation in order to remain strong.
Any symptoms of decreased cognition should be evaluated by a doctor to rule out any serious conditions. MS, for instance, may initially present itself by subtle changes in cognitive function before progressing to more severe symptoms. In most cases, memory loss or the inability to think clearly are caused by simple issues that can be remedied easily. Fatigue or stress, for example, can both result in temporary loss of cognition. The problem generally resolves once the underlying issues have been addressed. Prolonged symptoms or those that worsen with time should always be taken seriously, however, as they could signal either a mental or physical disorder.