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Understanding Mild Cognitive Impairment

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) mainly affects older adults. People with MCI have trouble with cognitive skills, such as remembering or thinking. These problems are worse than the normal mental changes that may occur as a person grows older. But they aren’t as severe as those caused by dementia. They don’t impair independence or day-to-day living.

MCI raises a person’s risk for Alzheimer disease or other dementias. But not all people who have MCI will develop such a health problem. In fact, some people with MCI have symptoms that stay the same for many years or even get better.

What causes mild cognitive impairment?

Experts aren’t exactly sure what causes MCI. But changes in the brain may lead to MCI. And this may lead to some forms of dementia. People with a family history of Alzheimer disease or dementia are more likely to get MCI. So are people who have heart disease. That’s because problems affecting blood flow to and from the heart can also affect the brain.

What are the symptoms of mild cognitive impairment?

A person with MCI is often the first to notice symptoms. Family members and friends may also note declines in memory or thinking.

There are 2 types of MCI, based on symptoms. They are:

  • Amnestic. This type mainly affects memory. For instance, you may have trouble recalling a person’s name or the word for an item. You may miss appointments. Or you may forget recent events.

  • Nonamnestic. This type affects thinking skills. You may struggle with planning, judgement, decision making, or concentration. You may also feel depressed, irritable, anxious, or apathetic.

In some cases, your symptoms may be caused by other physical or mental health problems. These include depression, sleep apnea, a head injury, a lack of vitamin B-12, or problems with your thyroid. Treating those problems first may help ease or reverse your symptoms. Always see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is mild cognitive impairment diagnosed?

Mild cognitive impairment can be hard to diagnose. Your healthcare provider will start by asking about your symptoms and past health. He or she will also ask about all the medicines and supplements you take. Some medicines can cause symptoms like MCI.

Your healthcare provider will also need to talk with family members to better assess your symptoms. They may be able to give more details about any changes in your personal care or day-to-day living.

You will likely also need:

  • Tests that assess memory and thinking skills

  • Lab tests

  • Imaging tests of the brain, such as an MRI or CT scan

  • More in-depth cognitive tests to gauge brain function

How is mild cognitive impairment treated?

MCI can’t be cured. But you may be able to prevent your symptoms from getting worse. Your healthcare provider may advise that you:

  • Exercise regularly. It can help keep your brain and body healthy.

  • Manage your risk factors for heart disease, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

  • Do activities that challenge or engage your mind, such as puzzles, games, or hobbies.

  • Stay social. Being around others can help keep your mind active.

Man and woman doing jigsaw puzzle.

Make sure you see your healthcare provider every 6 to 12 months. He or she will assess your symptoms to see if they are getting worse over time. Worsening symptoms may be a sign of Alzheimer disease or some other form of dementia.

When to call your healthcare provider

Call your healthcare provider right away if you have any of these:

  • Symptoms that don’t get better, or get worse

  • New symptoms

© 2000-2020 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.