Cognitive Fitness: Strengthening Your Mental Agility for Life

By Lane Barsh, March 20, 2024

Cognition (2)Uncover the secrets of cognitive vitality as we explore the markers that define our mental prowess and the strategies that can elevate our cognitive potential to new heights. Cognition is fundamental to human experience, influencing various aspects of life, from decision-making to social interactions. This article explores biomarkers associated with cognitive health and delves into strategies you can implement to improve cognition. 

Why does cognition matter?

Cognition shapes our everyday experiences, influencing how we think, learn, and remember. Strengthening our cognition can help to improve how we interact with the world around us. Here are a few benefits of maintaining and even strengthening cognition: 

  1. Stay mentally sharp: Optimized cognition allows us to stay mentally sharp. This means we can think clearly, reduce mental fog, and strengthen reaction times. [1]
  2. Logic and reasoning skills: Cognition supports crucial skills such as the ability to analyze situations, identify patterns, and make sound judgments. These soft skills are critical for problem-solving and decision-making. [2] For instance, reasoning skills are useful for adapting to new environments, such as college or a new job, and for effectively employing communication skills. 
  3. Manage stress: A strong cognitive function can help you navigate stressful situations more effectively. Stress is an inevitable part of the human experience (and some stress can actually be good for us). Being able to manage stress effectively is imperative for maintaining both physical and mental health. [3] Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), provided by a licensed or credentialed professional, is a great method for managing stress. 
  4. Strong relationships: Cognition impacts social competence and interpersonal skills. Studies show that strong social connections can foster healthy relationships. [4] 
  5. Better memory and learning: Improved cognitive function enables better memory retention, focus, and faster learning, making it easier to acquire new skills and knowledge. [5]
  6. Reduced risk of cognitive aging: Improving cognition may help in maintaining brain health and reducing the risk of age-related cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases. [6]
  7. Quality of life: In the end, cognitive health plays a crucial role in one's healthspan, which is all about their overall well-being. Sufficient cognitive health fosters increased independence, better social interactions, and greater resilience in facing life's challenges. [7]

Maintain brain health with vitamin B12 foods

What biomarkers are indicators of cognition?

While blood biomarkers don’t directly measure cognitive function, there are many blood biomarkers that have strong associations with cognitive function. When optimized, these biomarkers offer insight into the maintenance of cognitive health and the prevention of neurodegenerative disorders. Let’s dive into the science behind each of the biomarkers: 

Glucose: Keeping your glucose levels in your personalized optimal zone can help lower the risk of serious brain issues down the line. [8] Increased blood glucose levels are associated with greater amyloid accumulation, brain atrophy, reduced cortical thickness, and heightened dementia-related neuropathology. [9] There is also a significant correlation between elevated glucose levels and cognitive decline, including the onset and progression of Alzheimer's disease (AD). [10,11] So, keeping your blood sugar in check isn't just important for your metabolic health—it's also crucial for keeping your brain sharp and reducing the risk of neurodegenerative disorders.

HbA1c: Maintaining a healthy HbA1c level, a marker of long-term blood sugar control, is also important for long-term cognitive function. [12] Studies show that high HbA1c levels are linked to increased rates of neurodegeneration in areas of the brain associated with Alzheimer's disease. [13,14] This means that poorly managed blood sugar levels can contribute to the development and progression of Alzheimer's disease. So, preserve cognitive function by keeping your HbA1c levels in check!

Cortisol: High serum cortisol levels are associated with worse memory function and visual perception. Your brain's overall structure can take a hit too—high cortisol levels can lead to reduced cerebral brain volume in areas like the frontal and occipital lobes. [15] In general, cortisol is negatively related to hippocampal volume, brain structure, and memory performance. [16] Make sure to check in on your cortisol levels as a measure of your current stress levels, and your healthy aging, too!

Insulin: Insulin resistance isn’t only about blood sugar—it also poses a risk for cognitive decline. Studies show that insulin resistance puts people at a high risk for Alzheimer's disease (AD) is linked to imbalanced insulin levels. [17] People with AD often have lower insulin in their brain fluid and higher levels in their blood. This occurs due to chronic high insulin levels in the body, which obstruct insulin transport into the brain. [18] This is concerning because insulin resistance speeds up the buildup of beta-amyloid proteins in the brain, leading to cognitive symptoms such as memory loss. [19,20] To preserve cognitive health, it's crucial to maintain stable insulin levels. [22]

Vitamin B12: Low levels of B12 are associated with temporal lobe atrophy, cognitive impairment, Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, and Parkinson’s disease. [23] For individuals with mild cognitive impairment, taking a B12 supplement may slow the rate of brain atrophy. [25,27]

Folate: Folate, which works closely with vitamin B12, is also related to cognitive health. [21,24] Low levels of folate (B9) are linked with mild cognitive impairment and can potentially lead to dementia. [26] 

Signs and symptoms of cognitive decline

Keep an eye out for the following signs and symptoms related to reduced cognition:

  • Poor decision-making: Studies show that poor decision making is linked with cognitive decline. This relationship is observed even in individuals without Alzheimer's disease or mild cognitive impairment, suggesting that age-related cognitive changes are inherently linked to diminished decision-making skills. [28]
  • Metabolic syndrome: Cognitive decline is linked with metabolic syndrome, a condition associated with cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. This association underscores the importance of addressing metabolic health to preserve cognitive function, particularly in older adults. [29]
  • Visual impairment: There is an association between visual function and cognition, particularly among older adults. This association suggests that changes in visual function, such as declining visual acuity or depth perception, may be linked to changes in cognitive abilities such as memory, attention, and problem-solving skills. [30] 
  • Changes in speech: Research shows that individuals with cognitive decline also experience issues with speech. This is especially evident in a reduction of speech patterns (prosody of speech). [31]

How can you improve cognition?

Improving cognition is vital for mental sharpness and overall well-being. The good news is that research supports several ways to maintain and even improve cognition. Let’s dive into these four ways to upgrade your cognitive health.

  1. Engage in regular physical activity: Studies show that physical activity can stimulate significant changes in the brain's ability to adapt and change, known as neuroplasticity. Engage in regular exercise, such as running, swimming, or resistance training, to boost brain health and cognitive function. [32]
  2. Prioritize omega-3 fatty acids: Omega 3s support brain cell membrane integrity, neurotransmitter function, and have neuroprotective properties. As a result, omega 3s promote better memory, learning, and overall cognitive performance. Incorporating omega-3 fatty acids into your diet can be achieved by consuming fatty fish such as salmon or sardines, incorporating nuts into your meals, or supplementing with omega-3s like docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). [33]
  3. Get adequate sleep: Aim for 7-9 hours of quality sleep each night, as sleep plays a crucial role in memory consolidation and cognitive function. Further, research shows that sleep facilitates creative insights and inference-making. [34]
  4. Challenge your brain: Research shows that engaging in puzzle-style computer games can lead to heightened attention and alertness among individuals. Engage in mentally stimulating activities like puzzles, games, reading, or learning a new skill to keep your brain active and sharp. [35]

Key takeaways

  1. Optimizing cognition not only enhances mental clarity, problem-solving abilities, and memory retention but also fosters healthier relationships, reduces stress, and ultimately contributes to a better quality of life.
  2. Monitoring and managing biomarkers like glucose, HbA1c, cortisol, insulin, Vitamin B12, and folate levels are vital for maintaining cognitive health and reducing the risk of neurodegenerative disorders. 
  3. Cognitive decline, evident in poor decision-making, is associated with factors like aging, metabolic syndrome, and changes in speech patterns. 
  4. There are many ways you can take cognitive health into your own hands and improve your health. This includes engaging in regular physical activity, prioritizing omega-3 fatty acids, getting adequate sleep, and challenging your brain with mentally stimulating activities.



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