Just about every day, there is something new in the news about habits or practices that can predict how healthy children will be as they grow up and what our health outcomes will be as we get older. Diet and exercise get plenty of attention, but so do personality factors, marital status, pet ownership and many other characteristics.
A variety of external factors have been associated with mental health, including the environment, green spaces, health food options, and, of course, access to health care. The impact of school closures and social isolation during the CVOIID-19 pandemic has skyrocketed as a cause of increasing mental and other health issues for teachers, students and parents.
Cognitive Skills as Predictors of Health and Other Life Outcomes
When it comes to health, and many other areas of life, another set of predictors are our cognitive skills, particularly executive functions. Executive functions, specifically working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility, are strong predictors of many life outcomes, and that includes how healthy we will be as adults and the degree to which we will likely to be positive contributing members of society. Many people have heard of the “Marshmallow Test.” The findings of the original marshmallow test indicated that a child’s ability to defer gratification early in life is a predictor of academic achievement as an adolescent. More recent findings have emphasized the importance of interventions that can help improve executive functions to help the ability to delay gratification. The predictive importance of cognitive skills has more recently been shown in adults, as well, with quality of life related to health being related to executive functions.
Cognitive Skills and Mental Health
One often under-appreciated aspect of health outcomes in general and mental health in particular, is the role of cognitive skills. And we can look at this in two parts.
First, it is important to identify the relationship between mental illness and cognitive functioning. Cognitive impairment commonly accompanies a variety of mental conditions, including schizophrenia and affective disorders such as depression, bipolar disease and anxiety. This does not mean that these diseases and disorders are caused by deficits in cognitive skills. In fact, the reverse could be true. However, it is clear that they are connected and must be addressed together.
In a 2015 landmark study authored by the Mental Health Coordinating Council (New South Wales) and the University of Sydney Faculty of Health Sciences (Australia), researchers found a direct correlation between cognition and mental illness. – cognition being defined as the “mental capabilities or thinking skills that allow a person to perceive, acquire, understand and respond to information from their environment. In a broad sense, cognition means information processing. Cognition denotes a ‘relatively high level of information processing of specific information including thinking, memory, perception, motivation, skilled movements and language.”
And second, it is vital to recognize the potential to improve cognitive functioning, whether it is related to chronic disease, short-term stress or other causes. While strengthening cognitive skills may not, by itself, cure a mental illness, developing stronger skills typically reduces stress for children and adults because it gives them more confidence in their ability to learn, to solve problems and to successfully engage in new learning situations.
Improvement in cognitive skills can be achieved with the right kind of cognitive training. What is the “right kind” of cognitive training? It is cognitive training that is comprehensive and integrated, targeting a broad set of cognitive skills with tools and programs that incorporate key neuroscience principles.