Effects of Cognitive Impairments Through the Lifespan

Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

What are cognitive impairments, and what challenges do people with them face throughout their lives? In this lesson, we'll take a big picture view of cognitive impairments, examining how they impact a person's life in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.

Cognitive Impairment

Leslie is worried about her brother Thomas. He has a cognitive impairment, but she's not sure what that means. How will it impact Thomas throughout his life?

A cognitive impairment is a deficit in thinking, memory, attention, and/or language. Cognitive impairments can range from specific to general and from mild to severe. For example, one person might have a very specific and mild impairment that makes it difficult to control her attention, while another person might have a severe intellectual disability that impacts many different functions, including thinking, language, and memory. Still others might be like Thomas: he has a moderate and fairly general cognitive impairment that impacts his memory, attention, and language processing.

So how might a cognitive impairment impact a person's life? That depends on the impairment. To help Leslie understand the effects of cognitive impairments through the lifespan, let's look closer at what challenges might arise in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.

Childhood & Adolescence

Thomas is a child now, and Leslie wants to know what he might be going through. But she's also worried about his adolescence because being a teenager can be difficult for anyone, and having a cognitive impairment might just make it worse.

During childhood and adolescence, most people are at school. The educational experience can be complicated for children with a cognitive impairment. For one thing, socialization can be an issue due to both bullying by other children and the strong emotions someone like Thomas might feel when faced with challenges. For example, the other kids in Thomas' school sometimes bully him, calling him names like stupid. Not only does Thomas have to deal with that, but he has to deal with his own frustration when he doesn't learn things as quickly as he thinks he should.

Having a supportive educator and a safe school environment is critical for all students, especially those with cognitive impairments. They should be given positive outlets for their emotions. For example, Thomas' teacher helps him both by intervening with the bullies and also with his frustration. She rewards him for positive behaviors, like keeping his temper, and has set up a quiet corner in her classroom where he can go to be left alone when he's feeling frustration.

Clearly, socialization is important. But so are educational opportunities. Early intervention offers the best prognosis for students, so schools should set up academic supports for students as soon as trouble appears. It's important to know that all students can learn, but some just might need a little extra help or support. For example, Thomas needs extra time on exams and some extra tutoring help each week. Other students might need assistive technology to help them out. For an educator, it's important to figure out what supports a student needs to succeed.


Leslie is starting to feel a little better. She understands that things aren't easy for Thomas, but that he can be successful at school with the right supports. But what about after school? What will happen when Thomas is an adult?

A primary concern for adults with cognitive impairment is the ability to take care of themselves. As with education, the severity and generality of a person's cognitive impairment will influence how well they are able to do this. For example, Thomas can bathe and feed himself, but he sometimes struggles to remember things like showering or brushing his teeth. Others might struggle with the physical tasks required, but in a supportive environment and with assistance, everyone can live a full life that allows them as much autonomy as possible.

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