SFI Health
What Is Cognitive Health?

What Is Cognitive Health?

You are in control of your cognitive abilities.

Lifestyle insight
Reading time: 3 minutes

What is cognition?

Take your right hand and tap the top of your head. Now take your left hand and rub your stomach in a circular motion. Now, reverse the direction of your left hand, while still tapping your head with your right hand. Have you done it? You have just used your motor skills, a cognitive function, to complete this exercise.1

Cognitive abilities are brain-based skills that we need to carry out any task – ranging from the one mentioned above to more complex problem solving. The difference between cognition and knowledge is that cognition is all about how we learn and remember, and not the actual knowledge itself.1

The good news is that cognitive abilities aren’t fixed. You can continue to sharpen them via your lifestyle and targeted practice - it’s in your control!1

The elements that make up cognition2

Short-term memory

The amount of information we can retain in a short period of time (a matter of seconds).

Long-term memory

Our ability to retain information for the long term, and recall it when needed.

Working memory

Our ability to keep information long enough to use it to carry out plans and thoughts. Think of it as short-term memory pulling from long-term memory to make decisions.3


The clarity and amount of time we can keep our minds focused. (Or how easily we can be distracted)


How aware we are of our surroundings in real time. This directly opposes our ability to remain in focus.

Symbolic association

Our ability to form associations between symbols and concepts. (i.e. our ability to understand what a stop sign signifies, whether in terms of road rules or representation of what a stop sign could imply)


Our ability to unlearn a symbolic association and learn a new one.


Our ability to explore multiple solutions before arriving at the one we think is best.


Based on symbolic association, it’s our ability to deconstruct complex ideas and then recreate new ones using different components.

What factors can impact cognition?

There are some outside factors can have a negative impact on your cognitive health. 

Brain ageing: As we get older, some natural wear and tear happens within your brain, meaning that your brain cells (neurons) can’t always function as well as they used to. 4
Disease: There are multiple diseases that are more common in older age, that can impact your ability to think clearly. The one you are probably most familiar with is dementia.4
Brain underuse: Just like muscles becoming weaker due to lack of use, your brain power will decline if you don’t keep your brain active.4
Sleep: Poor sleep can impair the way you function.5 The longer you go without sleep, the worse it can be.
Diet: An unhealthy diet has a negative effect on your body as a whole.4
Activity: While it’s well known that an active body facilitates an active mind, scientists suspect that the opposite also holds true – an inactive body may contribute to an inactive mind.4,6



  1. Sharp Brains. What are cognitive abilities and skills, and how to boost them. Available at: https://sharpbrains.com/blog/2006/12/18/what-are-cognitive-abilities/ Accessed June 2018.
  2. Sapien Labs. Cognitive health: defining and measuring it. Available at: http://sapienlabs.co/cognitive-health-defining-and-measuring-it/ Accessed June 2018.
  3. Very Well Health. 4 types of memory: sensory, short-term, working & long-term. Available at: https://www.verywellhealth.com/types-of-memory-explained-98552 Accessed June 2018.
  4. Better Health Channel. Healthy ageing – stay mentally active. Available at: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/healthy-ageing-stay-mentally-active Accessed June 2018.
  5. National Institute on Aging. Cognitive health and older adults. Available at: https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/cognitive-health-and-older-adults Accessed June 2018.
  6. Wheeler MJ, et al. Alzheimers Dement (N Y) 2017;3(3):291–300.
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