Mild forgetfulness is often a normal part of aging. But for some people, memory and thinking issues can become more serious as they get older.
These memory problems can make it difficult to complete daily tasks, such as grocery shopping or keeping up with doctor’s appointments.
As you get older, it’s important to understand the differences between typical age-related memory issues and conditions like mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and dementia.
Take a look at the infographic below to compare the symptoms of MCI with dementia and normal aging.
If you’re experiencing consistent memory issues, talk with your doctor to find out the cause.
MCI is when a person experiences a small but noticeable decline in memory or thinking skills. People with MCI can usually still take care of themselves and complete daily tasks on their own.
MCI is fairly common in older individuals. The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that roughly 15 to 20 percent of people over age 65 may have MCI.
The symptoms of MCI are often broken into two main categories:
- Amnestic symptoms. These include memory-related problems, such as forgetting names, places, or conversations, or misplacing items and forgetting where they are.
- Non-amnestic symptoms. These include problems with thinking skills that aren’t memory-related, like losing your train of thought — or your sense of time or direction — or having trouble focusing.
MCI isn’t considered dementia, but roughly 10 to 15 percent of people with MCI may develop dementia each year, including a specific type of dementia known as Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s disease accounts for between 60 and 80 percent of dementia cases.
MCI is sometimes defined as a transitional stage between the expected cognitive decline of getting older and the more serious cognitive decline of dementia.
The differences between MCI, Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia, and healthy aging relate to the severity of your symptoms.
There’s no official diagnostic test for MCI. Your doctor will likely take a thorough history and perform blood tests to look for any underlying conditions that may be contributing to memory issues.
They may conduct interviews and mental function tests, on top of brain imaging and neurological exams, to assist with a diagnosis. Biomarker tests can also help determine whether you have Alzheimer’s disease.
Your doctor will ask questions about your ability to carry out common activities associated with daily life. These activities, which are called instrumental activities of daily living (IADLs) include:
- taking medications
- cooking or preparing meals
- performing housekeeping chores
- using a phone or other electronic device
- managing money
- pursuing a hobby or leisure activity
In some cases, MCI may be reversible.
There aren’t currently any medications that have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat MCI.
But MCI can be treated if it’s caused by any of the following:
- stroke or vascular disease
- traumatic brain injury (TBI) like a concussion
- a medication, as a side effect
- depression or anxiety
Changing or stopping medications or working with a therapist or doctor to treat insomnia, depression, or anxiety could reverse or even cure MCI.
In other cases, MCI will advance to dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, which are progressive conditions. This means that your ability to perform daily activities may worsen over time.
Cognitive decline associated with MCI tends to be more severe and noticeable than the normal aging process. But it usually doesn’t affect a person’s ability to carry out basic everyday tasks.
While not all cases of MCI progress to dementia, a person with MCI is much more likely to go on to develop dementia.
With dementia, cognitive difficulties will impact a person’s ability to complete daily tasks, like getting dressed, driving, or making good decisions.
If you receive a diagnosis of MCI, it’s important to visit your doctor every 6 to 12 months to make sure your symptoms haven’t progressed.