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Mild Cognitive Impairment: New Diagnosis

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Oct 31, 2022.

What is mild cognitive impairment (MCI)?

MCI is a condition that causes problems with your memory, attention, and ability to think clearly. You may have problems in only one of these areas, or in all of them. These problems are common with aging, but MCI causes problems that are more than should be expected in a person your age. These problems are frustrating, but they are not severe enough to stop your activities of daily living. Rarely, MCI may go away, and your thinking may return to normal. MCI may instead get worse and develop into dementia. Dementia is a condition that causes severe loss of memory, thought control, and judgment. Alzheimer disease is the most common cause of dementia.

What increases my risk for MCI?

  • Older age, or certain genes
  • High cholesterol or hyperlipidemia
  • Diabetes or high blood pressure
  • Sleep apnea or a cerebrovascular disease
  • Smoking cigarettes or a lack of mental or physical activity

What are the signs and symptoms of MCI?

MCI does not cause problems with your ability to function socially or at work. You or someone close to you will realize you can no longer easily do at least one of the following:

  • Remember new information or recall old facts, such as names or birthdays of familiar people
  • Follow the steps to make something, even if you have made it many times before
  • Follow directions to go somewhere, or know where you are as you travel
  • Pay attention, stay organized, or make a schedule
  • Understand words you read or hear
  • Say the words you want to say as you speak

How is MCI diagnosed?

Your provider will first rule out certain possible causes. For example, some medicines or combinations you are taking may cause symptoms similar to MCI. CT or MRI pictures may show an injury, infection, or inflammation in your brain. Blood tests may be used to check for a lack of certain vitamins or for high levels of certain metals or chemicals. A sleep study may show if you have sleep apnea or poor sleep. If these tests are negative, your provider may use any of the following to confirm MCI:

  • A symptom history is used to help your provider understand the problems you are noticing. Tell your provider about what has changed, and when you first noticed it. If possible, bring someone with you who is familiar with the problems you are having. This will be especially helpful if the person has known you a fairly long time. He or she needs to give specific examples of how your thinking or memory has changed, and when this started.
  • Neuro tests are used to check your reflexes and balance. These tests show how well your brain is functioning.
  • Mental status tests show how well you do certain tasks compared with people of the same age and education level as you.
  • Memory tests show how well you can remember new information or recall old facts. This test may be repeated over time to see if your memory problems are getting better, worse, or staying the same.

What can I do to manage MCI?

The goal is to prevent MCI from getting worse and progressing to dementia. Ask about these and other ways to manage MCI:

  • Work with your healthcare providers to create a care plan. A care plan is a way for you to make decisions about future care you may need. Your care plan can be set up so others know how to change it to meet your needs over time. This can be helpful if you are not able to make certain decisions later. Your providers will talk to you and anyone who lives or helps you about your personal and financial decisions.
  • Do activities that engage you. Examples include computer games, solving jigsaw puzzles, gardening, and creating artwork. Activities that involve language skills include reading, writing, and solving crossword puzzles. You may want to join a group so you can interact with others who share your interests. Other people can help challenge and motivate you.
  • Manage health conditions that can worsen MCI. Hypertension, diabetes, and other conditions can cause MCI to progress to dementia. Talk to your healthcare provider if you need help managing a health condition you have.
  • Eat a variety of healthy foods. Healthy foods include fruits, vegetables, low-fat meats, fish, beans, whole-grain breads, and low-fat dairy products. Your provider may recommend a heart healthy diet to prevent atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. This is a condition that increases your risk for dementia. A heart healthy diet is high in omega-3 fatty acids, fruits, and vegetables. It is low in saturated fats, salt, and sugar.
  • Exercise every day, or as directed. Physical activity may help improve memory and the ability to think clearly. Try to get 30 minutes of physical activity on most days of the week. Walking is a good activity for most people. Talk to your healthcare provider about the best activity for you.
    Walking for Exercise
  • Do not smoke. Nicotine in cigarettes and cigars contain harmful chemicals that can damage blood vessels to your brain. Smoking increases your risk for MCI and may cause it to progress more quickly. Ask your healthcare provider for information if you currently smoke and need help to quit. Smokeless tobacco products still contain nicotine. Talk to your healthcare provider before you use these products.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • You have new or worsening symptoms.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.