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Mild cognitive impairment (MCI)

Key points

  • Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is a brain condition that causes subtle changes to your thinking and memory.

  • The use of the word ‘mild’ does not mean your experience is mild.

  • Most people with MCI can usually stay independent and do their normal tasks.

About mild cognitive impairment

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is a brain condition that involves subtle changes to your memory and thinking.

MCI is not a normal part of ageing. The symptoms of MCI affect you more than normal ageing, but not as severely as dementia.

MCI is only ‘mild’ compared to dementia, which affects a person more severely. It does not mean that, if you have MCI, you only have mild problems. Your MCI symptoms might be very concerning to you and your family.

You might hear MCI referred to as ‘mild neurocognitive disorder’. This term refers to the same condition.

If you have MCI you can usually stay independent and do normal tasks, by learning ways to adjust to changes in your memory and thinking.

Causes of mild cognitive impairment

There's no single cause of mild cognitive impairment (MCI). MCI can be caused by a variety of factors, like:

  • medication side effects
  • sleep deprivation
  • anxiety
  • stroke or other vascular disease
  • traumatic brain injury.

MCI can also arise from the brain changes that occur in Alzheimer’s disease. 

To diagnose MCI, doctors conduct a review of your medical history and test your thinking and memory. Sometimes, diagnosis of MCI requires ruling out other conditions first.

Signs and symptoms of mild cognitive impairment

Everyone experiences mild cognitive impairment (MCI) in a unique way.

There are two major types of MCI, with slightly different symptoms:

Amnestic MCI

‘Amnestic’ refers to a partial loss of memory. Amnestic MCI mainly affects your memory, although your thinking can also be affected. It’s the most common form of MCI.

Someone with amnestic MCI may experience:

  • forgetting important information, like appointments, names or recent events
  • losing things.

Non-amnestic MCI

Non-amnestic MCI affects your thinking skills, but doesn’t affect your memory as much as amnestic MCI.

Someone with non-amnestic MCI may experience:

  • problems with language
  • trouble paying attention
  • finding it harder to make decisions
  • changes in visual perception that make it harder to judge distances and identify objects, especially if they’re the same colour as their surroundings.

You might notice these changes, or they might be picked up by family and friends.

If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor.

Diagnosing mild cognitive impairment

Because the symptoms of mild cognitive impairment can be subtle, it’s not always easy to diagnose. MCI can also have many different causes.

A medical specialist will only make a diagnosis of MCI after careful assessment. This might include:

  • a detailed medical history
  • a physical examination
  • blood and urine tests
  • a psychological assessment
  • memory and thinking tests
  • brain scans.

If the specialist can rule out any other condition, they may diagnose you with MCI.

Knowing that MCI is the cause of your symptoms might be alarming, but it also confirms that there is a medical reason for what’s happening.

Does mild cognitive impairment lead to dementia?

Dementia is a brain condition that can affect thinking, memory and behaviour. Its effects are more severe than mild cognitive impairment.

If you have MCI, you’re three to five times more likely to develop dementia, especially Alzheimer’s disease, than others your age. This can sometimes take many years to happen.

But having MCI does not mean you will definitely develop dementia. A substantial proportion of people with MCI have remained stable or even improved.

There is no way yet to tell which people with MCI will develop dementia, who will stay the same and who will get better.

Treatment and management of mild cognitive impairment

Researchers are testing drugs used to treat Alzheimer’s disease, but it’s not certain yet if they are good treatments for MCI.

If you’re diagnosed with MCI, your doctor will likely book you in for more tests over time, to see how your thinking and memory are changing. This helps you measure how you’re going.

Right now, there is no effective medical treatment for mild cognitive impairment. But there are lifestyle changes that can potentially delay the progression of MCI, including:

  • Exercise regularly: even going for a walk helps. If you’re not able to exercise or you’re at risk of falls, talk to your doctor about getting help from an exercise physiologist.
  • Eat a balanced, nutritious diet to support your brain health.
  • Stimulate your brain with activities, like learning a language or musical instrument, or making art.
  • Stay socially engaged: join groups or clubs, meet with family and friends regularly.
  • Take care of your mental health: talk to your doctor or a counsellor about your mood. They can also help you find ways to adjust to the changes in your thinking and memory.
  • Take care of your physical health: if you have conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol, get them treated. Stop smoking and avoid alcohol.
  • Manage your sleep: if you’re struggling to sleep, talk to your doctor.

Seeking support

Dementia Australia offers a free support program for people living with mild cognitive impairment. Visit Mild Cognitive Impairment: Thinking Ahead to find out more.

Dementia expert webinar: mild cognitive impairment, with Assoc Prof Michael Woodward
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Last updated
3 November 2023