Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is a slight deterioration in a person’s memory or thinking that does not affect their ability to live independently and perform most tasks. A person with MCI or those close to them may notice some changes in how they think or remember things.

MCI affects about 12–18% of people aged 60 years or over. A person’s risk of developing MCI becomes higher as they age, but other conditions, such as diabetes, can increase the chance further.

This article discusses the symptoms, causes, and treatment of MCI. It also looks at the outlook for people living with this condition.

A person in a kitchen who may have mild cognitive impairment (MCI).Share on Pinterest
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MCI affects a person’s memory and thinking ability to the extent that the changes will likely be noticeable to the person and those close to them. However, the person does not lose the ability to complete most daily tasks and can continue to live on their own.

The common signs or symptoms of MCI include:

  • forgetting about appointments or social events
  • misplacing household items, such as car keys, clothing, or other objects
  • difficulty finding the right words compared with peers of the same age
  • movement difficulties
  • changes in the sense of smell

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, other symptoms can include:

  • the inability to form certain sounds
  • trouble remembering events, instructions, or conversations
  • problems completing tasks
  • issues with visual perception

Experts do not fully understand what causes MCI.

The National Institute on Aging (NIA) notes that a person’s chance of developing MCI increases due to:

In some cases, it can occur as a result of treatable conditions. The American Psychological Association (APA) notes that MCI can occur as a result of the following treatable conditions:

  • medication side effects
  • vascular disease, which refers to any condition that affects the blood vessels
  • psychiatric conditions, such as anxiety, stress, or depression
  • sleep disorders, such as obstructive sleep apnea

Some conditions that may cause temporary MCI include:

Other potential causes include:

  • tumors in the brain
  • head injury
  • drinking too much alcohol
  • blood clots in the brain

MCI differs from dementia. According to Alzheimer’s Research UK, a British charity, “dementia describes a group of symptoms that can affect a person’s ability to carry out daily tasks without any help. These include memory problems, confusion, and mood changes.”

The charity notes that a person with dementia will typically have two or more of these symptoms.

A person with MCI will only have one of these symptoms, and it is usually mild enough that a person will not need help performing daily tasks.

Additionally, unlike Alzheimer’s disease, MCI does not lead to personality changes.

Does MCI lead to dementia?

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, although many people living with MCI may be in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, this is not always the case.

The NIA notes that approximately 10–20% of those aged 65 years or older with MCI go on to develop dementia over a period of 1 year. However, in many cases, the symptoms of MCI remain the same or improve.

People living with MCI often first get a diagnosis when either they or a loved one notices that they are having more difficulty remembering things or processing thoughts. Issues with memory loss may prompt the person to speak with a doctor.

According to the NIA, a person’s doctor will likely ask several questions and may order some tests to help determine whether the cause of the memory loss is treatable. If they are unable to find a cause, they may diagnose a person with MCI, or they may refer them to a specialist.

Specialists who can help with diagnosing MCI include psychiatrists, neuropsychologists, and neurologists. However, even a specialist may have trouble confirming a diagnosis of MCI.

According to the APA, diagnosing MCI is often not easy. The reason is that symptoms and signs can vary greatly from person to person. It can also be very difficult for a doctor to distinguish between typical signs of aging and MCI.

The APA notes that neuropsychological testing may yield the best results but that a doctor will ultimately still need to make the final determination of MCI.

Currently, there are no known effective treatments for MCI.

According to the APA, some doctors try to treat MCI with medication that treats Alzheimer’s disease. However, research has found that the treatments are ineffective in stopping or reversing the effects of MCI.

Some experts believe that the reason they do not work may be that doctors administer them too late. In other words, once a person starts to show multiple signs of MCI, medication will not be effective in reducing the symptoms.

The Alzheimer’s Association notes that a medication called aducanumab (Aduhelm) may help treat MCI. This medication is likely most effective when a person takes it at the first signs of dementia or MCI. However, there is not enough research regarding how well the medication works in the later stages of MCI or Alzheimer’s disease.

Instead of focusing on medication, the APA suggests that the best approach may be prevention. A person can reduce their chance of developing MCI by:

  • maintaining a healthy blood pressure
  • engaging in regular exercise
  • participating in cognitive training interventions

The organization also noted that regular exercise and approved cognitive interventions might help with MCI once symptoms have presented. However, researchers have not proven commercially available cognitive training to be effective in preventing or helping with MCI.

The NIA also suggests that a person take steps to help them manage, and potentially improve, the symptoms of MCI. These steps include:

  • keeping commonly used items in the same place
  • setting and following a routine every day
  • using memory tools, such as to-do lists, notes, and calendars
  • exercising regularly
  • eating a nutritious, well-balanced diet
  • taking the time to learn a new skill set
  • aiming for 7–8 hours of sleep each night
  • volunteering
  • spending more time with family and friends
  • stopping or moderating alcohol intake
  • seeking help for feelings of depression

A person should speak with a doctor if they notice symptoms of MCI. The doctor may recommend medication, help the person put together a suitable exercise plan, or suggest cognitive training therapy.

Family members or friends who notice any signs of cognitive decline in a loved one should consider discussing this with them. Early intervention may help prevent further cognitive decline.

If a person develops MCI, they should see a specialist or doctor every 6–12 months. A healthcare professional can help keep track of any changes in memory and thinking skills.

Although some people who develop MCI will eventually develop Alzheimer’s disease, others will not.

If a healthcare professional diagnoses a treatable cause, MCI can be reversible.

If the condition does not progress to Alzheimer’s or another degenerative disease, a person should be able to continue to live life independently as long as they can complete daily tasks around the home.

MCI typically causes issues with a person’s ability to remember and think clearly. It may cause a person to miss appointments, forget conversations, lose objects, or have trouble remembering the right words frequently.

Despite the cognitive impairments, a person with MCI can live an independent life. Few treatment options are available, but exercise and cognitive training may help.