MCI: Does It Lead to Dementia?

largest_Daughter_Father_Taking4.jpg​​Many caregivers struggle to meet the challenges of caring for someone with dementia. Others may be caring for seniors who instead are experiencing something called MCI, or Mild Cognitive Impairment.

What is MCI?

MCI might be considered a warning sign for dementia.  People with MCI have memory problems which are more severe than is typical for people of their age, but are not severe enough to be classified as dementia. MCI affects about 10-15% of people age 65 and up; about half of those with MCI develop diagnosed dementia within five years.

Sometimes MCI is brought on by early stage dementia, but sometimes may have other causes, such as a head injury (not always recent), diabetes, high blood pressure, and bad cholesterol. Thyroid issues, depression, and a lack of vitamin B12 can also play a role in impairing cognitive functioning.

Memory is the main function that’s affected by MCI, but a person’s abilities to stay focused, weed out unnecessary information, and go back and forth between tasks are also affected.  Because MCI is “mild” relative to dementia, most people can still function with it, but they may need a little help – they may require reminders about when they’re supposed to do things or more time to get through complicated tasks.  So if your senior is taking medicine, he or she may need something to help stay on schedule. If your senior loved one already has some issues – say, mobility issues, or a broken arm – then MCI may compound these problems.

Can we prevent MCI?

There’s a lot that is not known about MCI, but the current understanding is that there are some actions that can help to prevent it. These are the kinds of things that you or your loved one should start doing right now; they’re more likely to be effective if they’re part of a long term routine.

​Avoid developing high blood pressure, or, if you already have high blood pressure, be sure to treat it immediately.

​​Avoid developing high cholesterol, or, if you already have high cholesterol, be sure to treat it immediately.

Get plenty of exercise (pre-approved by a doctor, of course).  There seems to be some link between physical activity and brain activity.

Watch your diet.  A Mediterranean diet - one which emphasizes plant-based foods, healthy fats, and fish and poultry over red meat – is recommended.

​​​Stay connected.  People with larger and more fulfilling family and social circles are less likely to develop MCI or dementia.

How can I assist someone with MCI?​

Get the person in question a portable “reminder” device.  This might be a notebook or a planner, or it might be an electronic device. Whatever it is, your loved one should use it to store scheduling information, phone numbers, what medicines to take and when, and so forth.  Often, people have something like this, but they keep it in one place, such as on the refrigerator or by the phone. Someone with MCI would benefit from having it right at hand.

Have your loved one practice “spaced retrieval.”  This helps commit something to longer term memory.  For example, maybe have him or her say “Medicine at 10:00 a.m.” or “Call Mary tonight” a couple of times, wait a few second seconds, and then repeat it again. Have your loved one repeat this action six or seven times.

​​Help your loved one to stay focused; memory problems can also cause those affected to be unable to pay attention.  So encourage your loved one to say out loud, “I’m going to call Lauren now,” and then to visualize the action of walking over to the phone and talking to Lauren.

Compared to dementia, MCI is perhaps more of an inconvenience than a major problem, but you will want to pay attention to it for two reasons: (1) so that your loved one (and you!) experiences less discomfort and stress, and (2) because MCI may be a potential sign that dementia may develop later on.


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