How Cognition Relates to Physical and Mental Health
Keiron Sparrowhawk, CEO of MyCognition, explains why cognitive health is so vital for overall health
Research shows the healthier our cognition, the more resilient we are to stress and the better at controlling our response to trauma, injury or infections
All our therapist and counsellor members are able to claim the MyCognition app for free as part of their membership – email us to find out more
Johannes Donders, a 19th century optician working in the Netherlands, was the first to scientifically analyse cognition. He studied patients presenting with “eyesight problems” only to prove they were due to “cognitive deficits in attention”. Attention is one of the five core cognitive domains.
The five core cognitive domains
Cognition is our behavioural and emotional response to a task, goal or challenge. However, cognition also plays a significant part in the role of the immune system, which is at the centre of our mental and physical resilience to all forms of stress, experienced through traumas, injuries or infections.
Autoimmune disorders occur when the immune system malfunctions and we inadvertently destroy our own cells. They include physical disorders (e.g.: rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, irritable bowel syndrome, Crones disease, diabetes, asthma, etc.), a substantial number of cancers, and most mental illnesses.
The immune system responds to stress through cortisol, the stress hormone, which regulates the release of inflammatory agents called cytokines, e.g.: Interleukin-6 (IL-6). When the body is stressed as a result of injury or infection, IL-6 destroys (recycles) dead or infected cells. It kills bacteria or viruses by destroying the cells they infect, saving our life.
However, when the body is overcome with a severe injury (e.g.: severe burns) or severe infection, it can result in such high levels of IL-6 causing death through the destruction of whole systems. Essentially, the body “shuts down” to prevent unbearable pain or, if an infection, to prevent itself infecting others.
Mental Illness and inflammation
A similar pattern occurs when experiencing severe mental trauma. We block the unbearable memory of the pain from being established through the release of high levels of IL-6, which prevents the neuronal connections from creating the pain memory. This attempt at “damage limitation” has psychoneurological consequences.
Many mental illnesses result from a single, severe trauma, or a long-term, chronic exposure to disabling stress with the resultant IL-6 disruption. However, the stronger our cognition, the more resilience there is to this disruption. People with poor cognition have the lowest resilience and are most susceptible to the adverse impact of stress, but everyone has a “stress threshold.” By operating above your threshold, you are in inflammatory territory and at risk of burnout.
Cognition and the “stress threshold”
Living above our stress threshold not only leaves us at risk to mental illness and other autoimmune disorders, but also to inappropriate behaviour, learning difficulties, and poor productivity.
Cancer and Parkinson’s disease
The immune system protects us against cancer by eliminating tumours, but high levels of IL-6 can cause the immune system to malfunction, allowing cancers to proliferate. Immunotherapy “re-regulates” this system, but the resultant destabilisation of IL-6, either as a result of the cancer or its treatment, can have a detrimental impact on mental health.
High levels of IL-6 are associated with the progression and mortality associated with Parkinson’s Disease, but are also responsible for co-morbid mental illnesses observed.
Universities have worked with MyCognition, a cognitive health company based in the UK, to undertake ground-breaking studies looking at cognition in breast cancer survivors and Parkinson patients. Together with other studies, these are helping us to develop unique and innovative digital therapeutics, and they are also increasing our scientific understanding of the role of cognition and its impact of our daily lives.
The healthier our cognition, the more resilient we are to stress and the better at controlling our response to trauma, injury or infections. Many cancers and most psychoneurological conditions are autoimmune disorders, resulting for disruption of our immune system. Interventions that allow us to screen, treat and prevent poor cognition have a role in treating and preventing these disorders and their impact on our mental health.