Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) happens when you have a slight decline in your mental abilities, like memory and completing complex tasks. MCI has several possible causes, some of which are treatable. A healthcare provider can evaluate you for a diagnosis and possible treatment.
Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) happens when you experience a slight — but noticeable — decline in mental abilities compared to others your age. Mental abilities include:
You may notice the decline in your abilities, or a loved one might. But the changes aren’t severe enough to interfere with daily, routine activities of life.
It’s natural and expected to have some gradual mental decline as you age. For example, learning new information may take longer than before. Or your speed of performance may get slower.
But these declines due to aging don’t affect your overall functioning or ability to perform daily activities. Normal aging doesn’t affect recognition, intelligence or long-term memory.
As you age beyond 65 years, you may occasionally forget names and words and misplace things. With mild cognitive impairment, you frequently forget conversations and information that you would typically remember, like appointments and other planned events. MCI interferes with your daily, routine activities.
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Both dementia and MCI are descriptive terms that tell us about the degree of cognitive change and how it affects daily activities. The main difference between MCI and dementia is that the mental decline in MCI doesn’t interfere with daily living, whereas dementia does. In addition, people with MCI don’t experience personality changes that people with dementia can. Many underlying conditions can lead to MCI or dementia.
Dementia involves a decline in mental function from a previously higher level that’s severe enough to interfere with daily living. A person with dementia has two or more of these specific difficulties, including a decline in:
Some people with MCI eventually develop dementia, but others don’t. For certain neurodegenerative conditions, MCI can be an early stage of the condition. Neurodegenerative conditions affect your brain and get worse over time. Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease are examples of this. Some people with MCI return to normal cognition for their age or remain stable.
The American Academy of Neurology estimates that mild cognitive impairment is present in the following populations:
The main sign of mild cognitive impairment is a slight decline in mental abilities. Examples include:
Movement difficulties and problems with your sense of smell are also linked to MCI.
Mild cognitive impairment can have several possible causes. Some are treatable and others aren’t.
Some of the possible causes include:
MCI is often an early stage of certain neurodegenerative conditions. MCI can be an early stage of:
The strongest risk factors for mild cognitive impairment are the same as those for dementia:
Confirming a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment can be difficult. Many conditions involve MCI as an early sign. And some of its symptoms are common to many other illnesses.
Your healthcare provider will:
They may also order the following tests:
Neurologists and healthcare providers who specialize in treating people 65 and older (geriatricians) may assist in making the diagnosis of mild cognitive decline.
The treatment for MCI depends on the underlying cause if known. However, some cases of MCI from neurodegenerative diseases can’t be reversed. But if your mental changes are due to causes like an infection, sleep problems, mood or medication side effects, your healthcare provider will come up with a treatment plan.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hasn’t currently approved any medications to directly treat mild cognitive impairment. But there are treatment plans that include nonmedication options to improve cognition. They vary based on the underlying cause of MCI. Researchers are hopeful that Alzheimer’s disease medications could also help with MCI. They are currently studying this.
Researchers are actively studying treatment options for MCI. You may be able to join a clinical trial. Talk to your provider about your options.
Not all cases of MCI are preventable. But there are steps you can take to try to keep your brain healthy and reduce your risk of MCI, including:
The prognosis (outlook) for mild cognitive decline varies based on the cause and other factors. Researchers are still learning more about this condition.
Studies show that about 15% of people with MCI older than age 65 years developed dementia within two years of the initial MCI diagnosis. They also show that about 14% to 38% of people with MCI returned to their normal cognition level.
The rate of decline in someone with mild cognitive impairment often depends on the underlying cause. Researchers continue to study the mental and medical changes that occur in people with MCI. They hope to one day be able to better predict who might be at an increased risk of developing — and the speed at which they develop — specific types of dementia.
If you have a diagnosis of MCI, you may want to talk to your healthcare provider and anyone you trust about your future. This is especially important if your provider thinks your MCI is an early stage of a neurodegenerative condition, like Alzheimer’s. These discussions are important because they can help ensure caregivers can honor your wishes if you can’t choose for yourself in the future.
In addition to those conversations, you should put your wishes and decisions in writing. That includes preparing documents connected to legal issues and what happens if you can't care for yourself or make decisions for your care or well-being.
Because MCI may be an early sign of more serious neurological conditions, it’s important to see a healthcare provider or specialist every six to 12 months. This may depend on your treatment plan. Your provider can help track changes in memory and thinking skills over time and suggest changes that are relevant to your health. Keeping a personal record of any changes can also be helpful.
If you develop any new symptoms, contact your provider.
If you’ve been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, it may be helpful to ask your healthcare provider the following questions:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Learning that you have mild cognitive impairment (MCI) can be overwhelming. You may have a lot of concerns and questions about what to expect. MCI affects everyone differently. Know that your healthcare provider will develop a plan that’s unique to your situation. They’ll be there to answer your questions and support you.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 05/09/2023.
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