What Is Cognitive Impairment? - Definition, Causes & Symptoms

Instructor: Gaines Arnold

Gaines has a Master of Science in Education.

This lesson looks at what cognitive impairment is, how it happens, and what some of the causes are. It also looks at how people, throughout their lifespan, can be affected by events that cause cognitive impairment.

The Effects of Dementia

Harvey's family realized it was time to speak with a doctor. At age 55, he had begun to wander, not just in his mind as he had been doing for some time, but around the neighborhood. He had been diagnosed with the beginning stages of dementia when he was 50 and had declined since then. When his memory loss progressed quickly, Harvey's family realized that this was not a normal age-related cognitive decline. The doctor had also told them that it was not a result of Alzheimer's. The cognitive impairment that Harvey was experiencing was dementia.

What is Cognitive Impairment?

Cognitive impairment is a broad term that encompasses a multitude of diseases, both genetic and acquired, and brain damage caused via accidents. It is defined as difficulty processing thoughts that lead to memory loss, decision-making difficulties, inability to concentrate, and learning difficulties. This impairment is not confined to people of a certain age, gender or any other demographic. Anyone can be impaired through an action, inaction, or a genetic abnormality.

How Does It Happen?

It is easiest to look at cognitive impairment as it appears in the life cycle. Although it generally occurs more frequently as people age, it can happen at any time during a person's life. However, as with Harvey, there are different reasons for the occurrence of cognitive impairment relative to a person's age.

Infants are generally affected because of genetic issues. Children can be born with Down's Syndrome, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), autism, and other problems that are known to have an effect on how a person processes thoughts. These conditions persist throughout life and have varying degrees of impact on an individual's brain.

From childhood through the adult years, cognitive impairment is primarily caused by accident or disease. If an individual is involved in an accident that causes brain trauma, it is possible that he/she will experience cognitive impairment. Many diseases also include cognitive impairment as a side effect. High fevers from diseases associated with childhood, improper care of diabetic issues, cancer, and other forms of disease are possible causes. In both cases, the impairment can be temporary or permanent.

Another issue is neglect, which can happen at any time during a person's life. If people neglect their health, they can experience issues related to cognitive impairment. Malnutrition is also a primary cause.This can occur as a result of limited nourishment or consistent consumption of unhealthy foods. Substance abuse can also be placed in this category as it is impairment in the form of neglecting one's health.

Poor mental health is also seen as a reason for cognitive decline in many people. Long-term depression and anxiety can cause a great deal of stress and impair brain functions over time. Dealing with external stressors on a long-term basis can also be a problem.

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