What is Cognition?

By Eleanor Pineau


Often when I speak about my research, people ask me what cognition is. So what is it? What does it mean to have cognitive decline and how does it relate to dementia?


Question 1: What is cognition?

Answer: Cognition is an umbrella term used to describe all your mental processes. Cognition is made up of many factors including memory, attention, language, visuospatial abilities. Each of these factors is composed of many smaller factors. For example, memory is made up of long-term memory, short-term memory, episodic memory, semantic memory, and working memory.

Types of Memory graphic.png

What’s important for you to know is that cognition, and the processes that make it up, allow you to:

  • Experience a sensation, a perception, a notion, or have an intuition.
  • Make the decision to go to work in the morning, or pick out the clothes you are going to wear.
  • Speak and understand speech.
  • Remember where you left your keys, your mother’s name, and what your son looks like.
  • Pay attention to the road when you’re driving, or when you are having a conversation with someone.
  • Understand that a tree is a tree, and a pen is a pen.

Cognition allows you to understand and operate in the environment around you.


Question 2: What does it mean to have cognitive decline?

Answer: Cognitive decline means that a person has difficulties with ANY one or combination of the factors that make up cognition (i.e., memory, attention, language, visuospatial abilities).

What you need to know is that cognitive decline is a NORMAL part of aging. In fact, we cognitive decline starts in our 30s and 40s! Isn’t that crazy! But it’s ok because the declines are so minor that they don’t affect our daily lives.


Question 3: But isn’t cognitive decline = dementia?

Answer: Dementia is NOT forgetting where you put your keys…EVERYONE does that! It is completely normal. What dementia IS, is cognitive decline that is severe enough to impact one’s ability to complete essential daily activities such as eating, dressing, going to the bathroom, bathing, and moving around the environment.

So then what does dementia look like?

Dementia looks different in every single person that has it. Some people’s first symptoms are memory impairment. Others experience behaviour or personality changes first, while others experience problems in judgement or decisions.

Memory impairment in someone with dementia looks like this: it’s someone who forgets where they are, what they are doing, or the names and faces of their family members.

Someone else with dementia might have a personality change; so once they usually kept to themselves, and now they are more bold and interactive.

Another person with dementia might have problems with judgement and this might be expressed in giving too much money to a charity – like all their savings… eek!

As dementia progresses and affects more parts of the brain, more symptoms will appear and symptoms usually worsen. All these symptoms of dementia are due to a decline in cognition; damage to the brain.



Cognition is your brain – it’s all the processes that work to allow you to experience and interact with the world around you. Cognitive decline is a normal part of aging and is any decline in the ability to interact with the world. Cognitive decline may progress to Dementia. Dementia looks different in every person and all symptoms are due to a decline in cognition, damage to the brain.




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