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Mild Cognitive Impairment: Not Dementia, But More Than Normal Forgetfulness

Get the facts about mild cognitive impairment and how it relates to dementia

When symptoms aren’t quite dementia, but aren’t normal either

When you notice that someone might have memory issues or there are signs that their mental function seems “off,” you might assume that they have Alzheimer’s or dementia.

But even if family or friends notice changes too, the symptoms might not be severe enough to cause problems with everyday life.

In some cases, symptoms like these could be caused by mild cognitive impairment (MCI), not dementia.

It causes memory and thinking problems beyond what’s normal for older adults and affects 10 – 15% of seniors.

We explain what mild cognitive impairment is, the symptoms, how it’s diagnosed, causes and risk factors, and treatments.


What is mild cognitive impairment?

Healthy people experience a slow decline in cognitive abilities as a normal part of aging.

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is a middle stage between the occasional forgetfulness of normal aging and the serious cognitive decline of dementia.

It can cause problems with memory, language, thinking, and judgment.

People with MCI also have a higher risk of developing dementia. About 1 – 2% of seniors develop dementia every year. Among seniors with MCI, about 10 – 15% develop dementia every year.

But in some cases, mild cognitive impairment doesn’t worsen over time.

Some people with MCI may even improve over time. And in other cases, their symptoms might be stable and stay about the same.

Symptoms of mild cognitive impairment

Someone with mild cognitive impairment could experience these symptoms:

  1. Forgetting recent events or repeating the same question

  2. Forgetting important events like appointments or social events

  3. Being very easily distracted, losing their train of thought, or losing the thread of conversations, books, or movies

  4. Feeling increasingly overwhelmed by decision-making, planning, or understanding instructions

  5. Taking much longer than usual to find the right word for something

  6. Starting to have trouble finding their way around familiar places

  7. Becoming more impulsive or showing increasingly poor judgment

  8. Difficulty judging distances or navigating stairs

  9. Family and friends noticing any of these changes

They may also have:

  1. Depression

  2. Irritability and aggression

  3. Anxiety

  4. Apathy

These changes may cause someone with MCI to need a little help with the more difficult everyday tasks (like paying bills, managing medication, driving).

Diagnosing mild cognitive impairment

The benefit to a proper MCI diagnosis is that your older adult will know that their cognitive issues aren’t caused by a medication side effect or other treatable conditions that cause dementia-like symptoms and could be mistaken for MCI.

Plus, they’ll know if they have an increased risk of developing dementia.

That means doctors can monitor them regularly so if they do develop dementia, they can be diagnosed and treated as early as possible for maximum effectiveness.

The steps to diagnose MCI is very similar to those used to diagnose dementia.

It involves:

  1. Thorough medical history, including current symptoms, previous illnesses and medical conditions, and any family history of significant memory problems or dementia

  2. Assessment of independent function and daily activities, focusing on any changes from the usual level of function

  3. Input from family or a trusted friend to get additional perspective on how cognitive function might have changed

  4. Assessment of mental status using brief tests that evaluate memory, planning, judgment, ability to understand visual information, and other key thinking skills

  5. In-office neurological exam to assess the function of nerves and reflexes, movement, coordination, balance, and senses

  6. Check for depression, which is common among older adults and can cause some dementia-like symptoms including problems with memory or feeling “foggy”

  7. Lab tests including blood tests and brain imaging

  8. If needed, neuropsychological testing


Causes of and risk factors for mild cognitive impairment

The causes of mild cognitive impairment aren’t well understood.

Experts believe that many cases (but not all) are caused by brain changes that happen in the very early stages of Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias.

The strongest risk factors for MCI are the same as those for dementia:

  1. Advanced age

  2. Family history of Alzheimer’s or another dementia

  3. Conditions that increase risk of cardiovascular disease like high blood pressure, diabetes, or high cholesterol

  4. Activities that don’t promote a healthy lifestyle like smoking, lack of physical exercise, being lonely or isolated, lack of mental stimulation

  5. Having depression

Treatments for mild cognitive impairment

There are no FDA-approved medications that treat mild cognitive impairment.

Drugs that are approved to treat Alzheimer’s disease haven’t shown any benefit in delaying or preventing progression of MCI to dementia.

What is more helpful is to live a lifestyle that’s as healthy and balanced as possible to improve symptoms and lower the risk of dementia.

That includes:

  1. Eating a healthy diet, keeping a healthy weight

  2. Exercising regularly to improve cardiovascular and brain health

  3. Controlling health conditions that affect the heart and blood vessels like heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes

  4. Participating in mentally stimulating and socially engaging activities

  5. Treating depression

  6. Stopping smoking

  7. Limiting alcohol

Experts also recommend that a person diagnosed with MCI should be re-evaluated by their doctor every 6 months to monitor symptoms – stable, improving, or getting worse.

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By DailyCaring Editorial Team


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