Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI)

Steven Mott by Steven Mott | Licensed since 2012
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This article was updated on: 05/15/2017

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Many people may feel that forgetfulness is just a normal part of getting older—misplacing keys or forgetting a name or an appointment can happen to anyone. Sometimes, however, memory loss becomes more frequent or troublesome, possibly even causing concern for you and your family members.

According to the National Institute on Aging (NIA),mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is not dementia and generally doesn’t interfere with daily living, but the cognitive impairment that occurs with MCI carries an increased risk for Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia.

There are two types of mild cognitive impairment, according to the NIA. With amnestic MCI, the main symptom is memory loss. Nonamnestic MCI affects thought processes primarily; for example, your loved one may have poor judgment, or difficulty planning.

If you are a caregiver for someone with mild cognitive impairment, here are some tips that the NIA recommends for understanding the condition and coping with its effects.

What are the symptoms of mild cognitive impairment?

The Alzheimer’s Association lists the following symptoms that may indicate MCI. You may want to have your loved one evaluated by his or her doctor if you notice symptoms like these – especially if the person would normally not have these difficulities.

  • Trouble remembering things, like something that happened recently, or a conversation he or she just had
  • Trouble seeing things correctly (visual perception)
  • Difficulty completing a task (not understanding how)
  • Being unable to make decisions.
  • Problems with the sense of smell (according to the National Institutes of Health)
  • Acting unhappy or irritated (according to the National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine)

A doctor may be able to screen your loved one for MCI, by asking questions and possibly ordering lab tests if needed, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

What causes mild cognitive impairment?

Scientists aren’t really sure what causes MCI, reports the Alzheimer’s Association. The National Institute on Aging (NIA) suggests that certain medications may contribute to MCI. Cerebrovascular disease, which affects blood vessels that supply the brain, may be another cause. In some cases a person’s MCI can disappear, or symptoms can be managed, the NIA reports,

The Alzheimer’s Association lists specific risk factors that point to an increased possibility of developing the condition:

  • Cardiovascular disease risk factors such as high blood pressure, diabetes, lack of exercise, and high cholesterol.
  • Genetics (family history of mild cognitive impairmentor dementia).
  • Alcoholism or other substance abuse.

It’s important to note that even though MCI can be a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease, many people do not worsen and develop more severe cognitive impairment. Only about half of the people diagnosed with MCI ultimately progress to a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or similar dementia, reports the National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine.

As a caregiver, how can I help someone with mild cognitive impairment?

If you are the caregiver for someone with MCI, you may be able to help slow the decline in cognitive abilities and reduce the level of frustration your loved one experiences with these tips:

  • Encourage your loved one to get regular exercise to protect the heart and blood vessels, and to participate in activities that are mentally stimulating. Ask her doctor to recommend an appropriate exercise program.
  • Be patient and understand that your loved one will feel sad, anxious, and depressed about his declining abilities and loss of cognitive abilities.
  • Create a practical system of reminders to help your loved one keep track of daily medications, appointments, bills, and other events to encourage independent living. Post-it notes, cell phone alarms, medication reminder systems, and dry-erase calendar boards are all helpful tools a caregiver can use to help a person with MCI.
  • Encourage your loved one to do puzzles, play cards, listen to music, or do other enjoyable activities.
  • Take the initiative to introduce difficult topics such as power of attorney, health-care directives, estate planning, and other legal and end-of-life matters. Your loved one may no longer be able to make decisions for himself if the cognitive impairment progresses; as a caregiver, you can give him peace of mind knowing his wishes will be followed and his assets protected if the appropriate legal documents are in place.
  • Make sure your loved one is safe; for example, might he forget to turn off the stove? The has information about safety for those with Alzheimer’s disease, and some of the information may also be helpful for your loved one’s situation.

A diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment is difficult, both for the individual and for the caregiver and family members, but you don’t have to face it on your own. The National Institute on Aging has information on MCI, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease, as well as resources to help you find support. Your local Area Agency on Aging can also be a valuable caregiver resource.

This article is for general information only and may not apply to your circumstances. This article should not be used as a substitute for professional medical advice. You should always consult with your medical provider regarding diagnosis or treatment for a health condition, including decisions about the correct medication for your condition, as well as prior to undertaking any specific exercise or dietary routine.

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