What Is a Cognitive Disorder?

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  • Originally Written By: Debra Durkee
  • Revised By: C. Mitchell
  • Edited By: Daniel Lindley
  • Last Modified Date: 17 January 2020
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A cognitive disorder is any of a range of medical conditions that impacts a person’s ability to perform basic mental functioning. Disorders can and often do look really different depending on a variety of factors, and most occur along a spectrum such that some affected people experience symptoms profoundly whereas others may have only occasional flare-ups or trouble spots. In general, though, there are three main types of disorders. First are those related to natural aging and brain degeneration, then those caused by accident or head trauma, and finally those focused specifically on learning and data retention, particularly in childhood. All are similar in that they all impact how a person thinks and recalls stored information, but they can be quite different when it comes to diagnosis, treatment, and possible cure or reversal.

Understanding Cognition Generally

Cognition is generally defined as an individual's ability to perform tasks that use brain functions such as memory and reasoning. Those with cognitive disorders typically have symptoms such as memory loss, difficulty thinking problems through from start to finish, and an inability to focus for long periods of time.


It’s important to note that people can experience periodic cognitive difficulty that isn’t significant enough to qualify as a true disorder. Most people have moments of forgetfulness and may experience difficulty focusing for long periods of time or gasping complex concepts. While this can be worrisome, it isn’t usually anything that can be diagnosed. Defined syndromes or disorders almost always require deficiencies or problems in several areas that persist for a defined period of time. Sometimes these can be tested and may have genetic markers, but not always. Medical and psychological experts typically have a number of diagnostic tools and checklists they use before determining that a patient has or is likely to have a given disorder.

Age-Related Disorders

Some of the most common disorders develop as an individual ages. Dementia is perhaps the best known and often manifests as difficulties controlling or harnessing brain function in different areas. There are different types of dementia; some individuals will develop problems with long-term or short-term memory, while others will have trouble conceptualizing objects that are out of sight. It may become difficult to solve problems or make decisions, and speech may become impaired.

Alzheimer’s Disease and the related early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease are similar in that they typically manifest late in life, usually after age 60. These conditions are marked by a slow loss of memory, and patients often believe that they are living years or even decades in the past.

Problems Related to Accident or Trauma

Disorders can also be caused by outside trauma or deficiency. Korsakoff syndrome, for instance, causes memory loss, hallucinations, and a tendency to tell stories. Caused by a lack of the vitamin B1 in the system, it can result in permanent damage to specific areas of the brain. An individual who has been in an accident or suffered a blow to the head can also develop damage to a certain part of the brain, leading to cognitive difficulties.

Learning Difficulties

Someone may also be born with a brain problem or cognition difficulty that begins to manifest as he or she grows, often right about school age as children begin to be expected to focus on specific tasks or answer more complex questions under pressure. Some learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, also fall into the category of cognitive disorder. Dyslexia is a problem that prevents the brain from properly processing the appearance and order of letters, numbers, or words. Different types of dyslexia manifest as difficulties with spelling, reading, understanding language, or any part of language capabilities.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is another common example, and primarily impacts an individual's ability to focus his or her attention. An individual with this condition often finds it difficult to sit still or perform tasks that require closely following instructions. These individuals are often initially mistaken for being careless and flighty, and many can go undiagnosed until well into adulthood. Adding to the problem is that cognitive disorders seldom have a cookie-cutter diagnosis. Rather, a wide range of symptoms, abilities, and impairments may be evident.

Prevention and Healing

Not all cognitive disorders can be healed, but there are usually a range of mitigation tools available. Medication is often one route, as is various therapy and training. Most of the time, efforts to correct a cognitive flaw are most successful the earlier in life they are begun. Many dyslexics who are diagnosed in early childhood are able to correct and reroute their brain processing so as to read and learn in a mostly normal fashion, though much of this depends on the circumstances.

Problems that begin later in life tend to present more difficulties. There aren’t cures for things like dementia or Alzheimer’s, though a growing number of studies show that people who work to “exercise” their brains, often by doing simple computational tasks, on a daily basis are usually able to regain control for longer, and may ward off these sorts of disorders if they haven’t yet set in.


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