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Mental Acuity: How to Improve Cognitive Function and Performance

No matter whether you’re a student, working professional, or retiree, just about everybody wants to have the capacities to perform at their best mentally when the moment calls for it.  

The unfortunate reality, however, is that many different factors can ultimately impinge on your mental acuity, making it pretty difficult for your brain to function optimally all the time.  

Although some factors may simply be out of your control, there are several things you can do to improve your mental acuity.  Before we dive into the details, however, let’s first discuss what mental acuity actually is and how various biological and lifestyle factors can affect it.        

What is Mental Acuity?

The term mental acuity, which is also sometimes called mental “sharpness” actually refers to a collection of different mental functions that together, play a large role in the ability of your brain to function and perform.   

Cognitive scientists commonly look at mental functions like selective and divided attention, working and long-term memory, as well as things like information processing and decision making as a means of assessing a person’s mental acuity.(1)(2)

In order to perform any kind of mental task -- no matter how simple or complex -- you ultimately need to have all of these different mental processes working optimally in order for your brain to perform at its best.  

The problem is, our lifestyles and even biology itself can oftentimes interfere with things like our memory, attention, and decision making, ultimately making it just about impossible for us to be at our best mentally all the time.

Factors That Can Impinge on Mental Acuity

Researchers interested in the subject of mental acuity have spent much of their time examining how biological factors, and particularly the aging process, affect things like memory, attention, and decision making. 

On that, cognitive scientists have also explored how factors like stress and impaired sleep impact the ability of the brain to properly function and perform.  

Factor #1: The Aging Process

Countless clinical trials and systematic reviews have consistently demonstrated that mental acuity tends to declines with age.(3)(4) Studies evaluating cognitive functions like working memory, information processing, and selective and divided attention have consistently found that as age increases, cognitive performance, on average, decreases.(5)

While there may be some biological factors at play when it comes to age-related cognitive decline, researchers have also demonstrated that lifestyle factors like diet and exercise, which we’ll get into more in the following section, can play a large role as well.(6)(7)

Research shows that older folks are more likely to have nutritional deficiencies and they’re are also more likely to lead sedentary lives, both of which have been found to increase the chances of having cognitive impairments, especially later in life.(8)(9)

Factor # 2: Impaired Sleep 

Numerous studies have also demonstrated the important role that sleep plays in maintaining a healthy and well-performing brain.  Research shows that both the duration and quality of your sleep can significantly affect your mental acuity.(10)

On top of being associated with higher rates of depression, sleep impairment -- aka regularly getting less than 7 - 9 hours of sleep per night -- has also been shown to significantly reduce mental functions like information process, attention, and memory, ultimately reducing the ability of your brain to perform optimally.(11)(12)

The unfortunate reality, however, is that many people in contemporary western societies have been on a downward trajectory when it comes to the quality and duration of their sleep.  

In fact, available evidence suggests that the number of people who reported sleeping less than 6 hours a night has been steadily increasing here in the U.S., which at the end of the day, means that many of us probably aren’t regularly getting the kind of sleep we need in order to be firing on all cylinders mentally.(13)

Factor #3: Stress

On top of sleep deprivation, chronic stress has also been shown to increase the risk of cognitive impairment and disorder.  Stressful situations ultimately induce the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which can impinge on brain function and performance when it continues to accumulate and build-up in the brain.(14)

While it’s been well demonstrated that acute-stress (i.e. a single exposure to a stressful event) can inhibit cognitive performance in the short-term, more and more research is continuing to demonstrate that chronic stress (i.e. the continued exposure to stressful events) can have significant long-term effects on the brain, increasing the risk of mental illness and cognitive decline over the life course.(15)(16)

How to Improve Mental Acuity

While there may be some things that are simply out of your control when it comes to the function and performance of your brain, there are several things you can do to improve your mental acuity.  

In addition to staying on top of things like stress and sleep, research shows that good nutrition, along with regular exercise and supplementation can all help to promote optimal brain function, no matter how young or old you are.    


When it comes to the health of your brain, one of the biggest issues with contemporary dietary patterns here in the U.S. is that many of the foods we eat nowadays tend to have little nutritional value -- i.e. they’re packed full of things like refined carbs, which are stripped of most essential nutrients during the production process.  

So while processed foods -- especially those with things like refined grains and sugars -- may be tasty, they may not do a whole lot when it comes to providing your brain with the nutrients it needs to function and perform optimally.(17)

Research shows that a number of different nutrients are important for brain function, and a lack of any one can ultimately lead to cognitive impairments overtime.  In addition to micronutrients like vitamins A, B, C, D, and E, researchers have also found that unsaturated fats like omega-3s as well as numerous amino acids, also play a critical role in the underlying structures of the brain.(18)(19)

At the end of the day, if your brain isn’t getting an adequate supply of vitamins, minerals, fats, and proteins through your diet, everything from your memory to your decision making is potentially going to be compromised.  

Therefore, one of the easiest ways to improve your mental acuity is to change your diet.  Regularly consuming a healthy, well-balanced diet will help to support the critical structures and functions of your brain, and may actually help to improve acuity in those with previous nutrient deficiencies.    

The Mediterranean Diet

While there is no one standardized diet for improving mental acuity, The Mediterranean dieteliminates processed foods and is centered around vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and lean meats like fish, eggs, and poultry, which cumulatively contain the vitamins, minerals, fats, and amino acids your brain relies on to function.  

And indeed, numerous studies have demonstrated that regular adherence to the Mediterranean is closely associated with improvements in brain health status.(20) For example, one 2013 systematic review involving 12 different long-term studies ultimately found that 9 out of the 12 studies demonstrated better cognitive function and lower incidences of cognitive decline in individuals with high long-term adherence to the Mediterranean diet.(21)


Physical activity like exercise has also been shown to offer several mental health benefits, not only in aging populations but also in children, teens, and younger adults as well.(22)(23)

For instance, one 2012 meta-analysis ultimately found a positive effect of acute exercise on mental acuity across the 79 studies included in the analysis, with study participants, on average, demonstrating small but significant improvements in cognitive performance following a single bout of moderately intense exercise.(24)

A different meta-analysis ultimately found that, on average, individuals demonstrated a 20% improvement in cognitive tasks involving information processing and rapid decision making following a single session of steady-state aerobic exercise.(25)

Numerous studies have also demonstrated the positive effects that chronic exercise can have on cognitive function, especially in older folks. 

More specifically research shows that over time, adherence to a regular exercise routine can help to improve several aspects of your executive control, which includes mental processes like your working memory and inhibitory control -- both things that can oftentimes become more problematic as you age.(26)


On top of diet and exercise, research also suggests that you may be able to improve several aspects of your cognition through supplementation. 

On top of brain-supporting supplements like omega 3’s and multivitamins, researchers have also identified several substances that may actually enhance the capacity of your brain to perform certain mental functions.    

Known as nootropics, these kinds of mind-enhancing substances have been shown -- through numerous different pathways --  to improve everything from your attention and memory recall to your ability to sort, process, and store information.  

A number of different nootropics have been explored in well-designed human-based trials, and to date, there is convincing evidence that several substances may be effective when it comes to improving mental function and performance.

 Here’s a list of some of the most popular ones, for more information on each substance, click on the accompanying link: 

Improve Your Mental Acuity

With these 5 synergistic and clinically proven natural nootropics.

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Wrap Up

The term mental acuity refers to a collection of different mental functions that the brain relies on to perform its normal duties.  On top of things like your attention and memory, cognitive scientists also often look at things like information processing and decision making when assessing a person’s mental acuity.  

Researchers have found that several different factors can impinge on mental acuity.  On top of the aging process itself, sleep deficiency and stress have also been shown to negatively affect cognitive function and performance. 

In addition to getting an adequate amount of sleep and reducing your exposure to stress, optimizing your nutritional intake, getting regular exercise, and taking nootropic supplements have all been shown to be effective strategies for improving and maintaining mental acuity in folks of all ages.  

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