No one relishes the thought of developing dementia, but what about mild cognitive impairment (MCI)? Viewed as a possible early stage of dementia, MCI can lead to cognitive changes serious enough to be noticed by friends or family but without affecting their ability to live their life as usual, as defined by the Alzheimer’s Association. It is estimated approximately 12-18% of people age 60 or older are living with MCI and is often exacerbated depending on a person’s age, income, and education levels.
Defining mild cognitive impairment
MCI is not the same thing as dementia. Dementia is the loss of cognitive functioning – thinking, remembering, and reasoning – to the extent that it interferes with a person’s daily life and activities. Symptoms of dementia may include forgetfulness, confusion or the inability to solve routine problems.
In persons with MCI, their symptoms are not as serious but may include signs of forgetting a conversation with someone or losing your train of thought during a conversation. Other signs might include a shorter attention span to accomplish household chores like paying bills or becoming confused on finding your way around a familiar place.
The development of MCI often comes from certain situations such as:
- Traumatic brain injury
- A medication side effect
- An underlying health problem such as sleep deprivation, depression, or anxiety
- Stroke or other vascular disease
- Degenerative brain disease such as Alzheimer’s disease
What anyone with MCI wants to know is will it continue to advance to dementia? In 2017, an article in the journal Neurology, found that MCI cases progress to full-blown dementia about 15% of the time among individuals 65 or older. The length of progression is hard to estimate. Some patients with MCI are stable with no advancement over time, while others, especially if they are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, can progress within 2 to 5 years.
How is MCI diagnosed?
If you or your family notices cognitive changes, be honest with yourself and have a discussion with your doctor. Your doctor can perform in-office cognitive tests to check for MCI. These typically measure memory, attention, language, visual ability, and executive function. Based on the results, your doctor may refer you to a specialist, such as a neurologist, geriatric psychiatrist, or neuropsychologist for an in-depth evaluation.
These specialties can evaluate for more serious cognitive problems, if that is suspected. By consulting with these specialists, it can provide a more detailed assessment of your thinking skills and help identify cognitive domains that are weak or strong and determine if your level of cognitive impairment is worse than most people of your age.
How to forestall progression of MCI to dementia
The number one question of individuals with MCI wants to know is how can I prevent or at least slow down any progression of MCI to dementia?
While there is no proven method for preventing or slowing down MCI, research has found that certain health habits seem to have an impact. Here are some of the best ways to help slow MCI down:
- Stop smoking if you do this habit. Also, limit intake of alcohol – ask your family doctor for their advice.
- Be physically active every day. Aim for at least 30 minutes daily of moderate to vigorous exercise such as brisk walking, swimming, gardening, bicycling, yoga, or other activity you enjoy
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet. Have at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables, fatty fish like tuna, salmon, or anchovies, lean meat, nuts, beans, and lentils.
- Take time to relax. Listen to music, hike nature trails, go to a concert or movie, read a book, practice yoga or deep breathing, or engage in a favorite hobby.
- Get a good night’s sleep. Have a set bedtime, power down from all electronics at least one hour before going to bed, avoid stimulants like tea, coffee, or alcohol, and sleep in as darkened of a room as you can.
- Do activities keeping your brain active. This might include crossword puzzles, playing board games, reading, taking a college course, learning a new language, or anything that stimulates your mind.
- To help yourself to remember important appointments or events, use calendars, diaries or daily reminders on electronic devices.
- Keep socially active. It’s important to be amongst family and friends maintaining a strong social connection. Join a club, volunteer, attend religious worship services, have a friend over for dinner, anything that gives you something to look forward or to have a sense of purpose.