Declines in Physical, Mental Health Associated With Decline in Cognitive Engagement For Cognitively Impaired Individuals

April 26, 2021
Skylar Kenney, Assistant Editor

Preserving physical and mental health assists older adults experiencing cognitive impairment in staving off declines in cognitive engagement, according to a study published in Entropy. Although previous research has demonstrated that cognitive engagement can help older adults maintain cognitive health, the majority of this research has been done on healthy adults.

“There's very little work on cognitive engagement in people who are already cognitively impaired, such as people who have been diagnosed with dementia,” said Shevaun Neupert, PhD, professor of psychology at North Carolina State University, in a press release. “Are they still capable of sustained cognitive engagement? What factors contribute to that engagement?”

The researchers followed 28 participants, all of whom were over 60 years of age and had documented cognitive impairment. Participants came to a testing site twice, 6 months apart, where the researchers collected data on the physical and mental health of the study participants and performed a battery of tests designed to assess cognitive ability.

Cognitive engagement, which refers to taking part in activities that are mentally challenging, was measured via the monitoring of blood pressure. When participants work harder at cognitive tasks, blood pressure rises as more blood is pumped to the brain.

Participants were asked to engage in a series of increasingly difficult cognitive tasks, allowing the researchers to track how cognitive engagement changed as the tasks become progressively harder. Broadly, the study results showed that if a participant's cognitive ability, physical health, or mental health declined over the course of the 6-month study period, that participant became less cognitively engaged as the tasks increased in difficulty.

“Normally, you'd expect more engagement as the tasks became harder, but we found that some people essentially stopped trying,” said Claire Growney, co-author of the study, in the release. “In practical terms, it suggests that it may be particularly important for people to focus on mental and physical well-being during the early stages of cognitive decline. Or, at the very least, don't become so focused on addressing cognitive challenges that you ignore physical health, or create anxiety or emotional distress for yourself that leads to mental health problems.”

The study authors added that future research will be necessary to determine the benefits of of cognitively-engaging activities among individuals who have started to experience cognitive decline.

“But we already know that there is an element of 'use it or lose it' to cognitive function in healthy adults,” Neupert said in the release. “And while it's understandable for people to want to avoid tasks that are difficult or challenging, it's really important to continue challenging ourselves to take part in difficult cognitive activities.”

REFERENCE

Study highlights role of physical, mental health in cognitive impairment [news release]. EurekAlert; April 20, 2021. Accessed April 22, 2021. https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2021-04/ncsu-shr042021.php