Cognitive Disorder

What is Cognitive Disorder?

There are several different types of cognitive disorders, all of them affecting memory, learning, problem-solving, or perception.

Within the broad category of cognitive disorders are included dementia, amnesia, retardation, and delirium. Cognitive disorders can be genetic in nature, or may sometimes be caused by an injury.


Delirium is one form of cognitive disorder which may be temporary in nature or can appear on a recurring basis. The hallmark of delirium is the brain’s inability to grasp surroundings, or to process information. Hypoactive delirium is characterized by a lethargic or unresponsive condition, with a person being generally unaware of surroundings. The other type of delirium, hyperactive delirium, is usually manifested by hostility or over-aggressiveness. Some people are beset by mixed delirium, which, as you might guess, is a combination of hyperactive and hypoactive delirium. In most cases, delirium is only temporary, but it can develop into dementia in some people, and when that happens, it will usually result in some degree of memory loss. Any of the delirium disorders make it very difficult for a person to learn new information, and therefore it’s also very difficult to make any kind of accurate judgments.


Amnesia is a cognitive disorder sometimes referred to as an amnestic disorder, in which the main symptom is some kind of memory loss, either showing up as long-term memory loss or short-term memory loss. Contrary to some of the other cognitive disorders, people affected by an amnestic disorder are generally coherent but have noticeable difficulty with memory.


A cognitive disorder which primarily affects children is mental retardation, a condition characterized by generally subpar cognitive ability. This will be seen as an inability to learn and understand new concepts and functions at a level similar to what other children at the same age are capable of. Mental retardation is a condition that infants are either born with or become afflicted by early in life, resulting in developmental delays.


Dementia is more likely for someone who has a cognitive disorder than someone who does not, but by the same token, it should be noted that not all people with cognitive disorders will go on to develop dementia later.

Cognitive disorders can be relatively mild, often going unnoticed in people, other than as noted above. The most striking symptoms of cognitive disorders are discussed in the next section.

Cognitive Disorder Symptoms

Many people experience increasing forgetfulness as they age, which is not very surprising since, like all other parts of your body, the brain ages and changes as you get older. This being the case, it’s fairly natural to find yourself taking a little longer to remember someone’s name, or to try and think of a specific word, or to recall places and events which took place in the past.

These occurrences by themselves do not necessarily indicate any kind of cognitive disorder, but when you encounter this kind of difficulty remembering things, and the regularity of that difficulty increases, that’s when it may be a sign of something more than simple aging.

At the cognitive disorder stage, a person might find they forget things much more often, or that they forget important appointments and meetings with friends. Sometimes, cognitive disorder is manifested when a person’s train of thought is suddenly disrupted, or the content of a book or movie is completely forgotten, or the threat of a current conversation is lost.

Apart from such obvious memory issues, other symptoms of cognitive disorder can appear as a person being overwhelmed when having to make simple decisions, by attempting to plan the steps necessary for goal achievement, or when trying to interpret simple instructions.

Even more alarming, cognitive disorder may be manifested when a person begins to experience difficulty finding their way around settings which should be very familiar to them. Increased impulsiveness, often accompanied by poor judgment, is another of the symptoms of cognitive disorder. In terms of behavior, a person bothered by cognitive disorder may become depressed, irritable, aggressive, anxious, or simply indifferent to people and events going on around them.

Cognitive Disorders Causes

There is no one specific cause that can be pointed to with certainty as being the definitive cause for cognitive disorder. There are, however, some risk factors which make certain groups of people more likely to be afflicted with cognitive issues, the first of which would, of course, be advancing age.

Some medical conditions are also known to be associated with a much greater likelihood of leading to cognitive disorder, for instance, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and chronic depression.

There are also certain lifestyle factors which make a person more susceptible to developing cognitive disorder. One of these is inadequate involvement in mentally stimulating activities, which amounts to insufficient exercise for the brain. In the same way, lack of social stimulation can have a similar effect, because there is so little engagement involved. The exercise theme is extended to include those who do little or no physical exercise, thus putting themselves at greater risk for developing cognitive disorder. People who smoke or drink to excess are also in this greater risk pool.

There’s also a genetic factor which is associated with greater risk of developing cognitive disorder, traceable to a specific gene known as APOE – e4. This gene has been closely linked to Alzheimer’s disease, and although having this gene is not a guaranteed indication of either cognitive disorder or Alzheimer’s, it does seem to make both more likely.

Scientists now know that cognitive disorder often arises from the same kinds of brain changes which lead to Alzheimer’s disease, as well as some other forms of dementia. Autopsies conducted on people with cognitive disorders have revealed similar evidence to those people who have developed more serious forms of disorders and dementia.

One of these physical causes seems to be reduced circulation in the blood vessels of the brain, often causing undetected mini-strokes in an individual. It has also been discovered that many cognitive disorder victims have abnormal clumps of beta-amyloid protein which are called “˜plaques’, as well as microscopic protein clumps called “˜tangles’, which are known to be characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease. Another type of protein clump, associated with Parkinson’s disease, are called Lewy bodies and have also been commonly found in the brains of cognitive disorder victims.

Apart from the physical findings which are thought to be causes of cognitive disorder, brain imaging studies have revealed some additional discoveries. Although it is not clear why, many cognitive disorder victims have undergone a shrinkage of the hippocampus, which is a region of the brain closely associated with memory.

The fluid-filled spaces of the brains, known as ventricles, have often been found to be enlarged in the brains of disorder victims. One last discovery which is thought to be in some way a contributing cause to cognitive disorder is the detection of lower levels of glucose in important regions of the brain. Since glucose provides the main source of energy for all brain activity, it’s easy to see why a reduction in glucose levels would trigger a corresponding reduction in brain activity.

Treatments for Cognitive Disorders

There are no medications which are currently endorsed by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) of the U.S. for treatments.

That includes the entire catalog of drugs used for the treatment of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, since their usage in the past has not led to any kind of sustained improvement of cognitive disorder symptoms.

It should also be pointed out that using those kinds of medications on people who have cognitive disorders does not in any way prevent the condition from worsening into full-blown dementia.

With medication being ruled out as a treatment option, that leaves only lifestyle changes as a truly effective form of treatment for people with cognitive disorders. For instance, initiating a regular program of exercise has been found to be at least somewhat effective, because it provides great cardiovascular benefits, some of which bring positive benefit to the brain.

By the same token, it has also been found very useful to control cardiovascular risk factors to the greatest extent possible, so that the heart and blood vessels of the body retain optimum performance in nourishing the brain. It also helps a great deal for a person suffering from a cognitive disorder to become much more involved in activities which are mentally and socially stimulating, because those are the factors which help to exercise the brain. Reading books, doing crossword puzzles, and solving other kinds of brain teaser puzzles are all good ways to keep the mind active and engaged.

In the same way, participating in group sessions where socializing is required can keep many of the emotional and expressive parts of the brain stimulated. In order to determine if any of these treatment approaches are being effective, it may be necessary to periodically test a cognitive disorder patient. While worsening is always possible, these forms of treatment have been shown to be the most effective at halting and sometimes reversing the effects of cognitive disorder.

Cognitive Disorders Prevention

Curing cognitive disorder cannot be accomplished by any known drug or medication because the onset of such disorders is most often caused by genetics and lifestyle factors. The focus of prevention, therefore, must be on making intelligent lifestyle choices which remove as much of the risk factor as possible.

Diet and nutrition can be a considerable benefit in this area because there are a number of foods which have been shown to be brain-healthy foods, low in cholesterol and saturated fats. These include many dark-skinned vegetables and fruits because they have the highest concentration of antioxidants, which decrease the incidence of harmful free radicals in the body.

Cold water fish is another great source of brain-healthy nutrition and includes such species as whitefish, salmon, herring, tuna, and trout, all of which are high in omega-3 fatty acids. These omega-3 acids help tremendously to nourish brain cell membranes and facilitate learning and memory. Other great sources of omega-3 acids are cashews, Brazil nuts, avocados, peanut oil walnuts, pistachios, and leafy green vegetables.

It’s crucial to establish and maintain a regular program of exercise to facilitate prevention of cognitive disorder. Anything that gets your heart pumping, e.g. walking, jogging, swimming, and biking, are the best kinds of exercises to engage in for better brain health. Another benefit of physical exercise is that it stimulates the production of glutathione, which is another important antioxidant protecting the body against damage from free radicals.

Mental exercise can actually build new connections in the brain, which may serve to replace the loss of some other cognitive functions. Mental activity should be a program of lifelong learning that includes new and stimulating activities all the time, rather than repeating the same mental exercises over and over again.

New connections are also formed in the brain when social engagement is a regular part of a person’s routine, and the most effective kinds are those which combine physical exercise with social engagement.

It’s important to note that while any one of these preventive options will probably be at least somewhat effective in staving off the effects of cognitive disorder, the very best preventive approach is to adopt all of them together as a regular part of your lifestyle. Each of these activities is mutually supportive, and their combined effects constitute the very best approach known to preventing cognitive disorders.

Last Reviewed:
September 24, 2017
Last Updated:
December 07, 2017
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