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What is a cognitive assessment?

October 29, 2020 • read

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What is a cognitive assessment?

Cognitive functioning comprises brain-based skills which play an essential role in how you process information, execute motor skills, and store memories.

You rely on your cognitive function to carry out everyday tasks. From remembering passwords to driving your car, your brain is constantly drawing on its cognitive abilities. Changes to your brain, such as trauma or atrophy, can affect how well your cognitive function works. You can learn more about your overall brain function and cognitive health through a standardized test called cognitive assessment.

Cognitive functions you use everyday

Some of the most important cognitive functions are: 

Attention 

Attention is your ability to maintain focus on a given task. In situations where there’s a number of stimuli, your attention is what helps you prioritize where to focus your concentration. Short-term, this allows you to make snap decisions. You also use your attention to hold focus on tasks that require concentration over longer periods of time.

Memory

Memory is your ability to encode, store, process, and later retrieve information. There are different types of memory. Short-term memory is what allows you to remember things while you’re processing them. It’s how you keep small pieces of information, like a phone number someone recites to you, in mind just long enough to use it. Long-term memory is information that you keep with you for extended periods, even your whole life, like the name of your first pet.

Language 

This complex mental task is active when you read, write, and speak. Your ability to build your vocabulary or speak a language fluently is influenced by your cognitive strength in this area.

Executive function 

This is what you use to control your behaviour. It’s the self-regulation required to prioritize tasks, set long-term goals, or stay in control of your emotional response.

Visual and spatial ability

These are the abilities that allow you to understand where objects are in space, and how objects are related. Visual and spatial awareness also allows you to imagine two dimensional objects in different arrangements and recognize people’s faces. 

Praxis 

Praxis is also referred to as learned motor ability. It’s your ability to plan and execute physical movements. It also includes how well you’re able to reflect on physical movements you’ve made, and adapt accordingly. This function is at work during activities like learning to swim, or perfecting a golf swing. 

Orientation 

Orientation is your sense of self in different contexts. When you’re with other people, orientation is what helps you distinguish yourself as an individual. It’s also the ability to locate yourself in time and understand the meaning of minutes, months, or years. There’s a physical component to orientation too. It helps you maintain awareness of your body within a space.

What is a cognitive assessment?

A cognitive assessment is a standardized test done by an occupational therapist. The test evaluates your cognitive skills, and can be done remotely. Knowing which parts of your brain are functioning at full capacity, and which parts are not can help create a clearer picture of your overall neurofunction. 

Neurofunction is a map of how well your physical, cognitive, and psychosocial abilities are working. There are 25 cognitive skills that can be tested during a cognitive assessment, including attention, communication, memory, comprehension and judgment. 

Who should get a cognitive assessment?

Anyone can benefit from a cognitive assessment. It’s helpful to know your cognitive strengths and weaknesses for a few reasons. Cognitive assessments help your doctor form customized treatment plans. With your assessment results, your doctor will know exactly which areas of cognitive function to help you develop. For people who aren’t immediately concerned about their cognitive function, an assessment is a way to establish a baseline for your cognitive health. As you age, your doctor can refer to previous assessments to understand how your neurofunction may be changing over time.

Your age and medical history are strong indicators as to why you may want to have a cognitive assessment sooner rather than later. We’ve shared some examples below: 

1. Older adults

Cognitive function naturally decreases over time. As you age, the structure of your brain changes. There’s a network of information highways in your brain called dendrites that send and receive chemical signals from other cells. As you get older they lose their complexity and reach. That makes it harder for information to move back and forth, leading to cognitive decline. Cognitive decline is associated with specific medical conditions such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. 

Significant cognitive decline doesn’t happen to everyone. Research is still being done on exactly which age decline starts, but some studies show it can be as early as your 40s. The most common changes to cognitive ability as you get older include:

  • Decreased ability to quickly process information.
  • Impaired decision making.
  • Decreased executive function.
  • Memory loss.

When your cognitive function begins to decline, this can make it harder to lead a fully independent lifestyle. It can become difficult to navigate the world around you when your brain doesn’t function as well as it used to. Understanding your baseline cognitive function can help you plan how to slow the onset of age-related cognitive changes.

2. People who’ve had head injuries

If you were in an accident where you suffered a head injury, a cognitive assessment is a way to gauge the impact of that incident on your brain function. Some people with a brain injury may not notice a change in cognitive function immediately. Studies show that concussions increase the risk of dementia up to 30 years after their occurence. With a cognitive assessment, potential damage from head injuries can be identified and treated early. 

Your brain function has a direct impact on to your quality of life. A cognitive assessment can help you understand your brain’s strengths, and give insight into ways you can improve your neurofunction. 

If you’re curious about your brain function, speak to one of our occupational therapists. You can take a BrainFx Virtual Cognitive Assessment from home using your phone, tablet, or computer.

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