What Is Cognitive Performance and How to Improve It

What Is Cognitive Performance and How to Improve It

Written by Alison Lurie, In Business, Published On
July 25, 2023

Keeping the brain working optimally as we age is crucial for all adults. Whether it is problem-solving, being creative, focusing, or remembering past events, the brain’s many functions are all part of cognitive performance.

High cognitive performance goes beyond performing on the job or passing a test. It is about helping us have the best possible daily life as we go about our many activities.

The brain is always working, taking in new information, processing it, and sorting it away for future recall. Being able to bring the information back to the surface is crucial, and individuals who suffer from memory loss or forgetfulness fear the worst – a diagnosis of some form of dementia.

How to Improve Cognitive Performance

Maintaining high cognitive performance provides numerous benefits for our daily lives, including:

  • Healthier lifestyle choices

Research shows that people with higher cognitive performance exercise more often and eat healthier.

  • Increased job and career success and satisfaction

Higher cognitive performance helps people be more successful in their careers, providing job satisfaction as they move up the ladder.

  • Higher earning potential

Along with career success comes increased earning potential. Individuals with higher cognitive scores are more likely to earn more.

  • Reduced risk of developing dementia

High cognitive performance reduces the risk of developing dementia and other age-related cognitive and health diseases.

Cognitive health is only one area of brain health, focusing on clear thought processes, learning, and memory. These tasks are crucial to performing our daily activities. Cognitive health is part of overall brain health, which centers on brain functions in several areas.

Brain health includes the following:

  • Cognitive health: thinking, listening, perception, learning, remembering
  • Emotional function: the ability to interpret emotions and provide appropriate responses
  • Motor function: performing and controlling movements and balance
  • Tactile function: feeling and responding to touch sensations, including pain, pressure, and temperature

Stroke, traumatic brain injury, tumors and their treatment, substance abuse, opioid addiction, mood disorders, including depression, and certain brain diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, can affect brain health.

Categories of Cognitive Performance

From language to attention, memory to reasoning, cognitive performance is the driving force behind the daily actions and decisions that stem from the brain. With age comes a decline in brain functions, although the degree varies from one individual to the next. Exercising the brain is as crucial as exercising the body for optimum health.

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The brain is a powerhouse of activity, controlling emotion, temperature, hormone production, breathing, motor skills, touch, thought, vision, and more. The brain works on your day’s activities from the moment you awaken.

Cognitive performance encompasses the following functions:

Cognitive Performance

  • Attention

The ability to stay focused on a task, especially when surrounded by distractions of numerous tasks, is crucial, especially on the job. Attention helps strengthen short- and long-term memories by allowing the brain to focus on the information or task.

You may suffer from attention deficit if you are easily distracted, make frequent mistakes, jump from task to task, or have trouble finishing projects.

  • Memory

Your ability to recall stored information from your short and long-term memory can help you complete tasks or handle interpersonal relationships. You can tell if your short-term memory skills are lacking if you need continual directions to complete a task or reread something you just read. Long-term memory issue examples include forgetting important dates, names of others, and significant events.

  • Processing

The brain receives constant signals from the eyes and ears. Auditory and visual processing takes the information received in these ways and interprets it for storage and future use. Processing speed determines how quickly we can decipher and store information. Slow processing speed means it will take longer to understand and commit the information to memory. Judging distances and driving can suffer when visuospatial abilities decline.

  • Reasoning and logic

Problem-solving skills are crucial in daily life as well as job performance. Inability to make decisions, feeling overwhelmed, not knowing what steps to take next, having trouble understanding directions, and telling the difference between right and wrong fall under this category.

  • Language

A vital cognitive skill is understanding and using words to communicate, whether through speech or writing. Trouble communicating may occur with age, as older adults may have difficulty finding the right word.

What Factors Affect Cognitive Performance?

The brain never sleeps – it always works, even when you sleep. That is when many vital functions occur, such as the processing, organizing, and filing the day’s information. Lack of sleep can hinder the brain’s ability to categorize the information from the day and store it in short or long-term memory areas for future use.

Aging takes a toll on cognitive performance, making learning and retaining new things for future use more challenging. The brain struggles to replace neurons that die as we age. Those neurons are part of a neuronal network that transmits brain signals from one area to another. Brain shrinkage is a fact, with brain weight decreasing by as much as 11 to 14 percent by age 90 compared to early adulthood.

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Cognitive decline can be caused by natural aging along with numerous other factors, including:

  • Genetic

Some inherited factors are uncontrollable, yet there are often coping skills or medications that can help. Medical intervention may be necessary.

  • Environmental

Air pollution, safety and cleanliness, industry pollution, occupational exposure, access to community activities, limited green space, and harmful weather can negatively influence cognitive performance.

  • Brain injury

Any brain injury, especially traumatic ones (TBI), can impair cognitive performance. Keeping healthy bones and muscles in later years can help reduce the risk of falling, which can result in head injury.

  • Lifestyle

Poor lifestyle habits and choices like smoking, drug use, opioid addiction, and excessive alcohol consumption can interfere with cognitive functions. Lack of sleep, poor nutrition, a sedentary lifestyle, and social isolation are other lifestyle factors that can decrease cognitive performance.

  • Hormones

Hormonal balance plays a crucial role in good cognitive performance. Discover the role of peptide hormones and if there is a connection between peptides and active brain functions.

  • Health

Some medical issues can impair cognitive functioning, including high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. These conditions can alter or damage brain blood vessels, increasing dementia risks.

  • Medications

Some medications can alter brain functions, including but not limited to sleep aids, antihistamines, muscle relaxants, anti-depressants, antipsychotics, opioids, abdominal pain relievers, and medications to treat urinary incontinence.

  • Stress

Chronic stress increases cortisol levels, hindering sleep, energy, and hormonal balance. It can lead to consuming unhealthy foods and weight gain. Ongoing chronic stress initiates changes inside the brain that can affect memory and increase the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

  • Mood

Depression has been linked to attention problems and dementia.

How to Enhance It

Enhancing cognitive performance can make a significant difference in your life. Adults with high cognitive performance can see the “big picture.” They feel comfortable in new situations, have excellent working memory, can process information quickly, and recall it accurately. Executive functioning skills such as task flexibility, planning, self-control, and working memory capacity fall under cognitive performance.

Maintaining healthy cognitive functioning in older adults is crucial to ensure medications are taken, decision-making is possible, and performing crucial daily tasks proceeds as required.

Many factors can influence and enhance cognitive performance, some directly and others indirectly, as shown below:

  • Reduce stress (indirect): reducing stress can help lower cortisol levels and improve the production of human growth hormone (HGH) and testosterone, which are vital for brain health.
  • Good nutrition (indirect): we often hear about good nutrition for maintaining a healthy heart and body, but it is also crucial for keeping the brain functioning at peak performance. Focus on fresh fruit, vegetables, fish, poultry, lean meat, and nonfat or low-fat dairy products. Avoid sugars, excessive salt, and processed foods. Choose heart-healthy fats such as olive oil, avocados, and nuts.
  • Rest and recovery (indirect): the body and the brain require seven to nine hours of sleep each night for optimal functions. Sleep disturbances can lead to physical changes in the brain that damage cognitive function, so getting enough sleep can counter those issues and help improve executive function and memory.
  • Managing high blood pressure (direct): research has shown that high blood pressure levels in one’s 40s to early 60s can increase cognitive decline in later years. Exercise, dietary changes, and medications (when needed) can help lower blood pressure levels.
  • Physical activity/exercise (indirect): physical activity helps to lower blood pressure and weight while improving energy and reducing depression. Aerobic exercise may even help increase brain glucose metabolism and brain structure size in the areas that deal with spatial memory and learning. Exercise also helps increase blood and oxygen transport to the brain, which aids in chemical production to facilitate new neural connections.
  • Social interaction (direct): the brain responds differently to solitary activities than social interactions. That is why isolation in seniors is detrimental to cognitive well-being. Socialization requires numerous skills, including visual-spatial processing of actions, gestures, and expressions, focusing on other people’s motivations, and using decision-making skills to determine behaviors. Having a solid social network can help promote cognitive health.
  • Keep your brain active and intellectually engaged (direct): the other critical factor in supporting cognitive health is keeping the brain consistently challenged with mentally-tasking exercises.
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Examples include:

  • Word and number puzzles
  • Learning a new language
  • Music (making or listening)
  • Board games
  • Card games
  • Electronic or video games
  • Jigsaw puzzles
  • Travel
  • Films, plays, museums
  • Take up a new hobby, such as photography, knitting, quilting, writing, or dancing


Maintaining healthy cognitive performance is vital at any age. Problem-solving skills, memory recall, attention, and other functional actions can benefit from taking actions that can improve overall brain health.

Eating a nutrition-packed diet, engaging in physical activity, staying connected with others, and engaging in activities that help challenge the brain can improve cognitive functions. Learning something new helps to increase nerve growth (neuroplasticity) by causing the brain to respond to new stimuli.

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