Improving the Cognitive Health of Nurses (and Clients)


Published: 12 May 2018

How can we improve the cognitive health of our clients, and ourselves as nurses?

A systematic review and meta-analysis by De Vibe et al. (2017) suggests that mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) influences mental health, quality of life, somatic health and social functioning.

This review proposes that 21% of MBSR program participants can expect to have a better mental health outcome than if they were to have ‘usual treatment’ or were ‘wait-listed’ (De Vibe et al. 2017).

What is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)?

Liu et al. (2017) describe mindfulness practices in MBSR as often including 'meditations, body scanning and yoga'.

Liu et al. (2017) have written a protocol for an MBSR intervention for carers of people with dementia. It is suggested that this intervention may alleviate the worries and ruminations often felt by healthcare professionals.

This is achieved by promoting acceptance, stress management and mindfulness of the present moment.

Stress in Nursing

It is evident that nurses should consider ways to minimise stress and optimise their wellbeing.

Sarafis et al. (2016) highlight that stress related to nursing is connected to poor quality of life, and may in turn affect client health outcomes.

Nurses’ stress may be linked to:

  • Issues related to death
  • Interactions with families and clients
  • Staff conflict (e.g. with supervisors)
  • Uncertainty about therapeutic effects
  • Conflict with supervisors
  • Discrimination.

(Sarafis et al. 2016)

Other Strategies for Improving Mental Health

Mayo-Wilson and Montgomery (2013) explain that ‘anxiety disorders are the most common mental health problems.’ Despite this, there appears to be insufficient access to interventions.

Whilst it is proposed that professional help in the form of face-to-face cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) with a competent psychologist is more effective than self-help, self-help interventions could still help people with anxiety disorders who do not want to or are unable to access professional help (Mayo-Wilson & Montgomery, 2013).

Mayo-Wilson and Montgomery (2013) highlight that anxiety disorders are unlikely to be entirely resolved without intervention. Hence, it could be concluded that clients and/or nurses experiencing anxiety disorders should consider seeking professional help from a psychologist skilled in CBT to work towards reducing negative experiences related to anxiety.

Exercise and Cognition

It is believed that exercise may be beneficial for the cognition of children and older adults (however, a study by Erickson et al (2015) also highlighted a need for more randomised controlled trials to investigate this phenomenon further.)

‘Higher fit and more physically active older adults show greater hippocampal, prefrontal cortex, and basal ganglia volume, greater functional brain connectivity, greater white matter integrity, more efficient brain activity, and superior executive and memory function.’

(Erickson et al. 2015)

Kennedy et al. (2017), similarly to Erickson et al., state that regular physical activity can improve cognition. Furthermore, they convey that exercise may slow cognitive ageing processes and lessen the risk of dementia (including Alzheimer’s disease).

Kennedy et al. (2017) also acknowledge that there is a need for future research to investigate the reasons for these phenomena.

It is also important to note that hydration influences cognition, with a review by Casals Vazquez et al. (2015) showing that overall dehydration impairs the cognition of athletes.

Although this finding was focused on athletes, it can serve as a reminder to nurses and clients to remain hydrated to optimise their cognitive performance.

For nurses, in particular, this information may be important for the promotion of client safety. Nursing as already described can be a stressful occupation. It is important for nurses to engage in self-care in order to provide better client care.

Weight and Cognition

Interestingly, in a meta-analysis by Veronese et al. (2016), improved cognition resulted from weight loss. Specifically, this improved cognitive effect related to better attention and memory (Veronese et al. 2016). Therefore, people who are overweight or obese could consider having further medical evaluations done by health professionals to check if intentional weight loss is a suitable goal for them. This could potentially result in improved cognition, as per the study by Veronese et al (2016).


Before finishing this article, you may want to engage in the following cognitive game:

Create a phrase utilising the letters of your name, for example:

  • Management of
  • Adult
  • Dehydration involves
  • Electrolyte monitoring,
  • Likely
  • Intravenous fluids,
  • Neurological assessments and
  • Examination.



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Madeline Gilkes View profile
Madeline Gilkes, CDE, RN, is a Fellow of the Australasian Society of Lifestyle Medicine. She focused her Master of Healthcare Leadership research project on health coaching for long-term weight loss in obese adults. Madeline has found a passion for preventative nursing. She has transitioned from leadership roles (CNS Gerontology & Education, Clinical Facilitator) in the acute/hospital setting to education management and primary healthcare. Madeline’s vision is to implement lifestyle medicine to prevent and treat chronic conditions. Her research proposal for her PhD involves Lifestyle Medicine for Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus. Madeline is a Credentialled Diabetes Educator (CDE) and primarily works in the academic role of Head of Nursing. Madeline’s philosophy focuses on using humanistic management, adult learning theories/evidence and self-efficacy theories and interventions to promote positive learning environments. In addition to her Master of Healthcare Leadership, Madeline has a Graduate Certificate in Diabetes Education & Management, Graduate Certificate in Adult & Vocational Education, Graduate Certificate of Aged Care Nursing, and a Bachelor of Nursing. She is working towards her PhD.