What is Mild Cognitive Impairment?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 07 November 2018
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Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is a decline in cognitive abilities that is unusual for someone's age, but not so severe that the person cannot perform tasks associated with daily living. Previously written off as “senior moments” or normal aging, mild cognitive impairment is currently recognized as a potential sign of serious cognitive decline. There are no specific medications to treat this condition, but there are some approaches that can be used to manage it.

As people age, their brains naturally undergo some changes that lead to declines in cognitive function. Study of older adults has generated a large body of data to show the average rate of changes in cognitive function and this data can be used as a benchmark to compare a patient to people with a similar medical history and profile. If someone's cognitive abilities appear to be changing more quickly than peers in the same group, it is a sign of mild cognitive impairment.


Also known as isolated memory impairment or incipient dementia, this condition is usually noticed by people around the patient first. Someone may start to have trouble with memory recall and language, and may do things like repeating statements or forgetting that a conversation already occurred. In some people, mild cognitive impairment progresses to dementia, while others reach a stable state and stay there. The condition is believed to be associated with physical changes inside the brain that interfere with brain function, such as plaques that limit connections between neurons.

No single diagnostic test exists for this condition. The patient has to be evaluated by a neuropsychologist or neurologist. Medical imaging studies may be used to check for signs of damage to the brain such as a stroke, while a comprehensive examination is performed to explore other potential causes of the changes in cognitive function. This evaluation is used to rule out treatable causes and to check for signs of conditions that might need to be handled differently.

Some medications designed for patients with Alzheimer's disease appear to be helpful for people with mild cognitive impairment and they may be prescribed off label. Patients may also experience success with antidepressants and other medications. Once diagnosed, regular exams are recommended to see if the changes are progressive in nature. Patients may also find it beneficial to engage in activities that are designed to promote cognitive function to help them retain as many abilities as they can.



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