Mild Cognitive Impairment: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

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mild cognitive impairment

Reviewed by Dr. Richard Foxx, MD

What Is Mild Cognitive Impairment?

Every once in a while, we may forget things. Maybe it’s where we put our keys, or the name of a neighbor’s daughter. These things happen and are generally no cause for concern. But if you notice that these memory lapses are happening more frequently, and are becoming slightly more than a minor inconvenience, it could signify mild cognitive impairment, or MCI.

Mild cognitive impairment is a form of memory loss that is notable yet not debilitating to the degree of dementia. It is generally defined as mild memory loss or difficulty thinking; however, it does not impair independent function or daily life.

If you are concerned about this, read on. There are steps you can take to help.

MCI essentially falls somewhere between normal age-related memory troubles and dementia. While it can be a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias, it does not always progress to further cognitive problems.

There are two types of MCI. Amnestic MCI is associated with memory loss, and is the most common type of MCI. It is marked by forgetfulness of certain details like a doctor’s appointment or the name of a friend.

The second type of MCI is nonamnestic MCI, and it’s used to describe troubles with thought processing. Trouble keeping a balanced checkbook, exercising good judgement, and planning fall under this category.

Amnestic and nonamnestic are not mutually exclusive, and the same person can have both types.

Mild Cognitive Impairment Causes and Risk Factors

The causes of MCI are not firmly understood, but there is evidence to suggest that some of the same factors that lead to dementia might play a role, albeit to a lesser degree.

Some of the factors that may lead to MCI-associated brain damage include:

  • Beta-amyloid plaque and protein tangles
  • Reduced blood flow to the brain
  • Shrinkage in areas of the brain associated with memory
  • Decreased use of glucose in areas of the brain associated with thinking
  • Enlargement of ventricles

There are also a handful of risk factors for MCI. According to Psychology Today, potential risk factors include:

  • Age
  • Genetics
  • A lack of intellectual engagement
  • Poor metabolic health—hypertension, diabetes, obesity, smoking, and high cholesterol
  • Depression

Walking gait and mobility patterns may also indicate mild cognitive impairment risk.

Mild Cognitive Impairment Symptoms

Mild cognitive impairment may be hard to notice because it’s easy to attribute the occasional bout of memory loss or confusion to age. And that’s fair. Figuring out if you have MCI can be a rather unique process, and usually relies on a form of comparison.

If loved ones, or those you spend more than sufficient time around, express increased concern over forgetfulness or decision-making, it is worth listening to them. Further, if you notice issues with your sense of smell or increased difficulty recalling words, these might also be signs. For example, if your vocabulary has declined compared to your age peers, it could be a sign of MCI.

Other symptoms can include:

  • Repeatedly misplacing or losing items you use regularly
  • Forgetting to go to appointments/events

One way to distinguish mild cognitive impairment from dementia is to look at personality. A person with MCI will not display any changes in personality, while those with dementia may undergo noticeable changes in the way they conduct themselves.

MCI is not considered a form of dementia by doctors or medical professionals because it does not cause the same type of disruptions to personality, lifestyle, or independence as dementia does.

Diagnosing Mild Cognitive Impairment

If you, your family, and/or friends are noticing an increase in your memory lapses, you might want to seek the opinion of a doctor. The Alzheimer’s Association reports that 10% to 20% of people over age 65 may have MCI.

A doctor will conduct a series of tests to determine whether there is a chance a patient has mild cognitive impairment. They will generally inquire about family history and any current illnesses. Testing will also involve levels of cognitive function and ability to function independently, while also evaluating overall mood and behavior.

Brain imaging scans as well as other tests to rule out any other potential infections that might be influencing cognition are also likely.

According to the National Institute on Aging, about eight in 10 people who are diagnosed with amnestic MCI go on to develop Alzheimer’s within seven years. By comparison, one to three percent of people older than 65 with normal cognition will develop Alzheimer’s in any given year.

Mild Cognitive Impairment Treatment

At this point, there is no approved medication to treat MCI. That said, there are a number of natural and lifestyle-related treatments that may reduce its influence and slow or prevent the development of further cognitive decline.


One of the most well-studied and influential treatment methods in battling MCI is exercise. Research has shown that going for walks may slow the progression of cognitive decline in people with mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s, as well as healthy adults.

Trying to get out for a 30- to 60-minute walk at a moderate pace at least three times per week may produce beneficial results.

Eat Well

Your brain relies on your heart to supply it with nutrient-rich, oxygenated blood to function properly. Therefore, a diet that is good for your heart is generally good for your brain. Eating foods that promote lower inflammation, reduced blood pressure, and lower cholesterol might help encourage good brain health and limit cognitive impairment.

It’s worth including more leafy green vegetables, colorful fruits and veggies, fish, nuts, legumes, and whole grains in your diet, while reducing intake of processed food.

Increase Engagement 

Becoming more engaged with your community by volunteering, taking a class, or joining a club can all help maintain your mental acuity. The social contact, influx of information, and requirements to learn and remember new things may help charge your brain to prevent cognitive decline. Keeping an active mind is one of the best ways to encourage a healthy mind.

Spend Time with Family and Friends

Social connection also plays a big role in cognitive health. Being socially active and forming quality relationships prevents isolation, which can be bad news for brain health.

Become a Creature of Habit

If you notice your memory waning, routine and habit take on added importance. Being sure to leave your keys, wallet, glasses, etc. in a designated and easy to access place can reduce your chances of losing them. When you get home, place these items away before removing your coat, shoes, or walking further inside.

Use Scheduling Tools

Using big calendars, your smartphone’s calendar app (remember to set reminders), to-do lists, and notes to yourself can all help you deal with the symptoms of MCI. Writing down appointments immediately in a place where you’ll easily see them will ensure you’re less likely to miss them.

Maintain Hope with MCI

Not having the memory of yesteryear can be frustrating, but it does not mean you’re destined for Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia. If you’re living with mild cognitive impairment or noticing that minor memory lapses are occurring with increased frequency, you may be able to nip it in the bud.

Talk to your doctor in addition to adopting some of the lifestyle measures mentioned above to keep your brain as healthy as possible, while potentially delaying or preventing more severe cognitive decline.

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