Mild Cognitive Impairment

Mild cognitive impairment is not a normal part of aging. It is a term used to describe a person’s decline in memory or other areas of cognitive function that are mild enough to not be causing any problems with living independently. The person can still take care of their daily activities such as driving, remembering to take their medications, and paying their bills. But the decline is not just normal aging. Mild cognitive impairment can be thought of as a pre-dementia condition.

Mild cognitive impairment as a label is a good start in counseling a person about their cause for memory problems, but it is not a disease in and of itself, in the same way dementia is a general term but not a specific disease.

There can be many causes for mild cognitive impairment, and the outcome depends on the specific cause. Some people with mild cognitive impairment return to normal. Their mild cognitive impairment may have been caused by a mood disorder that was treated, or sleep apnea that was treated.  However, other people with mild cognitive impairment progress to dementia. This can happen when the cause for mild cognitive impairment is an early stage of Alzheimer’s disease or an early stage of another type of neurodegenerative disease.

It is often difficult to distinguish between mild cognitive impairment and normal aging in a routine doctor’s visit. Neuropsychological testing is usually recommended to help clarify the difference. Neuropsychological testing is performed by a PhD neuropsychologist, often lasting three or more hours across one or more visits. A comprehensive cognitive behavioral neurology consultation may be able to differentiate between mild cognitive impairment and normal aging, but even then neuropsychological testing is still typically recommended. This is because neuropsychological testing can give the best understanding of a person’s cognitive strengths and weaknesses, which can help clarify the underlying cause for the mild cognitive impairment, as well as inform a cognitive remediation plan and identify compensatory strategies that may help.

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