WHAT DOES THE WORD COGNITION MEAN?
Cognition refers to our ability to think, understand, obtain, comprehend and respond to information. This includes our ability to focus, remember, process information, resolve problems, organise and reorganise information, communicate and act upon input. All these capacities are performed individually and are connected to each other in order to allow us to operate in our work, family and school environments.
Cognitive competences are different from academic ones. Academic competences include knowledge about different subject matters, such as literature, mathematics and history. Cognitive skills are our mental ability to understand academic subjects, and, generally speaking, they enable us to operate properly in our daily lives. Attention, concentration or thought process problems can make it very difficult to keep up with schoolwork. Even students who have been outstanding in the past may feel discouraged when experiencing those problems, or by their declining grades.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS?
• Ability to pay attention;
• Ability to remember and evoke information;
• Ability to process information quickly;
• Ability to respond to information fast;
• Ability to think critically, plan, organise and solve problems;
• Ability to start a discussion.
How do cognitive problems manifest themselves in daily life?
Cognitive dysfunction can take on different forms. Each cognitive problem is described below.
Focus – Some may find it difficult to pay attention when they are being spoken to or when receiving instructions. Others may find it difficult to concentrate while reading and say that they miss the connections between the most significant elements, especially if they read over a long period of time. They may also find it difficult to focus on something while something else is going on.
They get distracted or so engrossed in something that they cannot take in other events happening around them. Multi-tasking, such as answering a client’s question while working at a till, for instance, may become terribly difficult because it requires divided attention.
If a student’s grades are falling, he/she may begin to think negatively of him/herself, and may decide not to risk failing academically and drop out. People with this type of problem also lose the ability to consolidate acquired knowledge and learning habits – or worse, they may even develop poor learning skills.
The ability to focus, remain attentive and not get distracted are very important to enable us to operate socially on a daily basis.
Memory – The ability to remember and evoke information, especially what is said or heard, is often an indicator that there is an issue. Sufferers may forget instructions and their ability to remember what they have read or heard may drop.
MCI – MILD COGNITIVE IMPAIRMENT
Due to the increase in average life expectancy, mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is becoming more common in older people.
MCI is a transitional state between the normal ageing process and dementia. Mild cognitive impairment is characterised by the loss of abilities such as memory, language and attention span. It is not sufficiently serious for it to impact the affected individuals’ daily lives, but it does reduce their quality of life because of the intellectual deterioration they are undergoing.
Vascular risk factors, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol levels may contribute to a decline in cognitive abilities. It is fundamental to treat such symptoms efficiently in order to prevent any increase in MCI. Obesity and smoking also increase the risk of cognitive impairment. If required, these matters must also be addressed.
THE IMPLICATIONS OF MCI
The impact of detecting MCI is mainly positive. Most people suffering from MCI are fully aware of this fact and feel concerned about their cognitive problems. Acknowledging the fact that they suffer from MCI validates their concerns and they then become aware that their symptoms are not of a medical nature. In this manner, they can adopt strategies to deal with their problems and access support services.
Knowing that they are at a higher risk to develop dementia allows people with MCI to plan for a possible deterioration of their situation in the future. This will encourage them to adopt an active and healthy lifestyle, which can delay the onset of cognitive decline.
THE IMPORTANCE OF A HEALTHY LIFESTYLE
The importance of regular physical exercise to maintain cerebral health as we age has been proven. Some studies suggest that there is a drop in cognitive impairment in MCI sufferers who exercise regularly (e.g. walking).
Having a healthy diet is also important for cerebral function. The Mediterranean diet has been linked to a reduction in the risk of MCI progressing to dementia. This diet includes a lot of fruit, vegetables, fish, nuts and olive oil. The benefits of this diet are related to the antioxidants and unsaturated fats contained in these products (1).
QUESTION: CAN WE TRUST MEDICINAL PLANTS?
Can the intake of medicinal plants slow down the ageing process and prevent the appearance of venous diseases that run in the family? Yes!
According to João Beles, “Medicinal plants are the most widely-used anti-ageing treatment in the world. Several clinical and epidemiological studies performed over recent years have proven that the intake of such products can delay the appearance of illnesses that run in families up to 10 to 20 years sooner”.
This specialist also states that many people who are genetically predisposed to contract certain illnesses are actually able to prevent them altogether by ingesting medicinal plants (2).
The use of plants in the treatment of diseases began empirically: the shapes of leaves, fruit and similar products were often likened to diseased parts of the human body on the basis of their shape. Such experiments led to the selection of the most effective plants.
Scientifically, the study of medicinal plants has gained ground in recent years, both in terms of their composition and their pharmaceutical impact. Scientific research has been performed and their results have been disseminated in magazines and to the public at large.
Today, phytotherapy and the usage of medicinal plants have moved on from their traditional use. Nowadays, the quality, efficacy and safety of the products are increasingly the object of focus (3).
Today, the general public is growing more and more concerned by well-being and health, and there is a rising interest in natural and plant products, over chemical, synthetic products that have a toxic effect on the human body. Medicinal products are therefore increasingly considered a safer and more correct choice.
(1) Text: Dr. António Nascimento Gomes
(2) Text: Daniela Gonçalves.
Scientific review: João Beles (Professor of Naturopathy from the Traditional Medicine Institute) and Dr. Serra Brandão (vascular surgeon and Director of the Institute of Vascular Recovery in Lisbon).