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Mild Cognitive Impairment

Many people over 65 live happy, healthy, independent lives. Most healthy older adults experience mild decline in some areas of cognition, such as the ability to generate words, remember phone numbers, and people’s names.  So what’s normal?  As we get older, our memory starts to decline.  The primary area affected is the ability to get new information stored in long-term memory.  How fast we think and do simple mental activities slows down, and word problems become more prevalent as we become older.  Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) refers to aging individuals who exhibit cognitive deficits that are not severe enough to be considered dementia, but negatively affect cognition.

About 10 to 15% of adults age 65 and older are believed to have MCI.  About half of people with this condition go on to a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease or another dementia within five years.  Others have other health problems that lead to an MCI diagnosis, and once these are treated their cognition improves.    Some examples of this include thyroid problems, a Vitamin B12 deficiency, and depression.

Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) is an intermediate stage between the expected cognitive decline or normal aging and the more serious decline of dementia.  Cognitive functions affected by MCI include memory, the ability to multitask, switch back and forth between two tasks, or inhibit irrelevant information and stay focused on what’s important.  Intellectual ability, vocabulary, and general knowledge are generally not affected.  MCI causes a slight but noticeable and measurable decline in cognitive abilities. 

Some MCI symptoms to watch for include repeatedly asking questions or making the same comments, getting lost in a place that you’re familiar with, forgetting an important event (a big meeting, etc.), losing your train of thought or the thread of conversations, increased impulsivity or increasingly poor judgment, and feeling increasingly overwhelmed by making decisions, planning steps to accomplish a task, or interpreting instructions.  Although there are currently no medications to prevent or treat MCI or dementia, there is a compelling body of evidence that indicates that due to neuroplasticity and cognitive reserve, cognitive intervention for MCI can result in significant improvement in the daily functioning and moods of individuals with MCI.  Because these individuals still retain the cognitive capabilities to learn and apply new information and strategies, they are ideal candidates for early cognitive therapy.  Early intervention can help them maintain or potentially increase their cognitive functions.  Intervention is not a cure for avoiding dementia, but it can help improve and stabilize cognitive function, performance of daily activities, behavior, mood, and quality of life.

Written by: Brenda Reeves, M. Ed., CCC-SLP