Feeling fuzzy lately — fuzzier than usual? Nearly one in five Americans over the age of 60 experience subtle downturns in memory, thinking, and cognition. Doctors refer to this downturn in cognitive abilities as mild cognitive impairment (MCI).
MCI can sometimes turn into something more serious. One in six people living with MCI eventually go on to develop dementia. The good news is that it’s more likely that people living with MCI will recover. One in four people with MCI get back to their usual level of cognition.
Figuring out and treating the underlying cause or causes of a person’s MCI symptoms could help find a treatment to reverse it.
What is mild cognitive impairment — and how do I know if I have it?
If you receive a diagnosis from your doctor of mild cognitive impairment, it means you’re showing more memory or thinking issues than other people your age.
It’s not a diagnosis that’s handed out flippantly. If you’re worried you might have MCI, talk to your doctor, and if they don’t take your concerns seriously, ask your doctor for a referral to a neurological specialist.
Neurologists conduct comprehensive neuropsychological evaluations — the gold standard for diagnosing MCI. This typically involves hours of cognitive tests.
Symptoms: What does MCI feel like?
If you’re struggling with what’s often referred to as “brain fog” or having other cognitive issues that don’t seem normal to you, MCI might be the cause.
Some forms of MCI only affect memory. This is called amnestic MCI. People might forget previous conversations, or misplace items like wallets and keys. In other cases, MCI affects parts of the brain that aren’t related to memory, causing difficulty with speech or language (also known as aphasia), trouble focusing, and difficulty navigating familiar spaces.
People with MCI often experience things like:
–Losing one’s train of thought
–Getting lost or disoriented in familiar places
-Having a hard time following along with a story or conversation
-Missing appointments or social engagements
-Difficulty with decision-making or judgment
-Difficulty finishing tasks or following directions
MCI can also come with symptoms like uncharacteristic depression, anxiety, aggression or apathy. These same symptoms are also common in people living with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia — but across the board, MCI’s symptoms are less severe.
If you’re noticing any of these symptoms — or if your friends or family are — it might be time to check in with a doctor. As mentioned, 25 percent of cases of mild cognitive impairment are treatable.
So what causes MCI?
Sometimes, MCI is a sign of the very early stages of neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s, or other forms of dementia. But only sometimes. There are other things — including insomnia, menopause, depression, cardiovascular disease, hyperthyroidism, traumatic brain injury, and stroke, that can lead to MCI.
If untreated, these other causes could also increase the risk of developing dementia. But treating these conditions may well reverse and clear up MCI.
Lifestyle changes might help reverse MCI
Sometimes, it’s not clear to doctors what’s causing a person’s MCI, but even in this case, there may still be a good chance of reversing it, just by changing one’s lifestyle. Research has shown that people with MCI from an unknown cause who stay intellectually and physically engaged — doing things like driving and using maps, reading books and newspapers, and participating in hobbies and other activities — may be more likely to recover from MCI.
The bottom line: If you think you have symptoms of MCI, talk to a doctor or ask for a referral to a cognitive specialist. There might be steps you can take to restore your cognitive health.