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3 Things to Know About Mild Cognitive Impairment

March 21, 2024

We all occasionally forget to do a task, misplace our car keys or struggle to remember the name of a familiar song.

But when these episodes start to happen over and over again, or become more frequent, you might be experiencing mild cognitive impairment.

“We all have temporary or momentary lapses in thinking and memory. When those moments become more frequent, however, it might be time to be checked,” says Mark Alberts, MD, co-physician-in-chief of the Hartford HealthCare Ayer Neuroscience Institute and chief of Neurology at Hartford Hospital.

Here’s what you need to know.

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1. Mild cognitive impairment isn’t the same as normal aging.

Mild cognitive impairment happens when your memory and cognitive thinking decline more than what’s considered normal for your age. You may have trouble:

  • Thinking
  • Remembering things
  • Higher levels of reasoning
  • Executive function such as planning, focusing and multi-tasking

Research shows that millions of Americans have mild cognitive impairment, but many are undiagnosed.

2. But it also isn’t the same as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

Mild cognitive impairment is different from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease because it isn’t severe enough to impact your ability to go about your day-to-day routine. And although it can be a sign of dementia, there are many other possible causes.

“Mild cognitive impairment is a common disorder that can be seen with aging but is not exclusive to older people. It’s a broad umbrella term impacting a diverse population, but it’s incorrect to say it will always progress to Alzheimer’s disease,” he explains.

> Related: 5 Foods That Promote Brain Health

3. There are many possible causes of mild cognitive impairment.

While some causes of mild cognitive impairment can’t be reversed — like dementia or Alzheimer’s — others can be diagnosed and treated by your healthcare provider, Dr. Alberts continues.

Potential causes include:

  • Depression. It’s not uncommon for someone who is very sad or grieving to be unable to think clearly. “It’s a manifestation of their depression,” he says, calling it “pseudo-dementia.”
  • Medications, including some cardiovascular drugs, corticosteroids, narcotics, and more
  • Vitamin deficiency — especially B12, which is crucial for neurological function
  • Hormone disorders, like hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism
  • Recent concussion or head trauma
  • Sleep disorders like insomnia, sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome

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When should I worry?

Sporadic lapses in memory – forgetting a name, misplacing car keys – are natural, Dr. Alberts says. It’s when they become more frequent or progress that you should talk to your primary care physician.

Look for:

  • Impairment that seems progressively worse over weeks or months
  • Abnormal behavior like getting lost when driving to a familiar place
  • Trouble with activities of daily living
  • Inability to make important decisions

Mild cognitive impairment can be easily diagnosed with a thorough physical exam and some additional testing, Alberts says.

“We then want a full medical work-up to evaluate the person for underlying causes,” he explains.

4 ways to keep your mind sharp as you age

The best way to keep your mind sharp as you age is by keeping the brain and body active, says Dr. Alberts. He suggests:

  • Regular physical exercise
  • Puzzles or reading
  • Conversations with others
  • Taking a multivitamin

“All are important for promoting brain health,” Dr. Alberts says.