What Is Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), and How Is It Treated?

You might notice it with tasks such as remembering recent events, managing your medication, or even driving. A mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is a condition in which someone experiences minor problems with cognitive skills, such as memory, problem solving, and attention. However, these symptoms shouldn’t significantly interfere with your daily life or cause major problems.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, about 12% to 18% of people age 60 or older are living with MCI. Although it increases your risk for developing dementia, MCI will not always progress to dementia or even get worse over time. Whether MCI remains stable or worsens depends on the cause. And no matter what stage you are in, speech therapy can help.

Let’s explore what causes MCI, how it differs from “normal” aging, how speech therapy can help, and what you can do to prevent MCI. 

Is it normal aging or mild cognitive impairment?

Most healthy people will experience a change in their cognitive skills as part of the aging process. But a person with MCI will experience a greater change than what’s typically seen in normal aging. 

Here’s an example of how to recognize the difference. With normal aging, a person may occasionally forget words or pause to remember directions. What is not part of the normal aging process is getting lost in familiar places or forgetting the names of close family members.  

What are the symptoms of MCI?

Other symptoms of MCI include:

  • Forgetting recent events

  • Repeating the same questions

  • Struggling to think things through

  • Being easily distracted

  • Taking longer than usual to find the right words to use

  • Difficulty judging distances or navigating the stairs

Again, MCI consists of minor cognitive issues that don't interfere significantly with daily life. If you or a loved one are experiencing similar problems that are causing more severe concerns, this may indicate dementia.   

What are the causes of mild cognitive impairment?

Sometimes, MCI is actually a “pre-dementia” condition. This means that the brain diseases that cause dementia are already present. For example, some people with MCI have mild memory loss that starts gradually, then worsens over time, likely developing into Alzheimer’s disease. Unfortunately, this process is not typically reversible. 

But other causes of MCI symptoms are treatable. If you or a loved one is experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s important to talk with a doctor. Early detection can make a big difference. Your doctor can determine if another condition is causing these problems, such as anxiety, depression, stress, physical illness (such as infection), poor eyesight or hearing, vitamin or thyroid deficiencies, or even the side effects of some medications. If this is the case, the person is typically treated for that condition and the symptoms of MCI disappear over time. 

If you or a loved one has any of these symptoms, talk with a doctor. Early detection can make a big difference.

If MCI is diagnosed, your doctor will discuss treatment options to help manage your symptoms and enable you to maintain independence for a longer period of time. Speech therapy is often recommended.

Speech therapy can help mild cognitive impairment

Speech therapists work to prevent, assess, and treat communication disorders. If you or a loved one is experiencing changes in cognitive skills, a speech therapy evaluation can be beneficial. 

Your speech therapist will complete a thorough assessment to identify areas of strength and areas for improvement. They will then work with you to:

  • Strengthen your skills

  • Teach you strategies to use in your everyday life

For example, if you’re having a tough time with multitasking, your speech therapist may have you complete a task (such as pill sorting) while listening to a short story. Multitasking requires a special type of attention that can feel difficult when you have MCI.

You’ll also learn strategies to help you manage daily tasks. Let’s talk about memory strategies as an example. These strategies may include writing things down, repeating words or numbers to yourself, creating acronyms, or even picturing things in your mind. These types of strategies can be extremely helpful when trying to remember appointments, names of people, phone numbers, instructions, or a grocery list.

These are just some examples of the many things you can learn and improve with the help of a speech therapist.   

Reducing your risk for MCI

Is it possible to prevent mild cognitive impairment? Although there is currently no approved medication, there are ways a person can lower their risk of MCI. A combination of these recommendations is best:

  • Regularly seeing your doctor to manage any vascular conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, or stroke

  • Not smoking

  • Drinking alcohol only in moderation

  • Getting regular physical activity

  • Eating a healthy diet

  • Staying mentally and socially active, such as by doing puzzles, playing cards, reading, and maintaining a social life with friends (more ideas below!)

  • Learning strategies to improve memory and other cognitive skills–this is where seeing a speech therapist comes in!

Mental activities to help prevent MCI

This study outlines which mentally stimulating activities are best, at what age, and how often we should do them to reduce the risk of MCI. Here is a general outline:

  • Reading books: 2 to 3 times per month

  • Computer use: Any age, 5 to 6 times per week

  • Social activities: Age 50 and older, 2 to 3 times per month

  • Playing games (such as crossword puzzles, cards): 2 to 3 times per month

  • Craft activities (such as pottery, quilting, sewing): After age 70, 2 to 3 times per month

MCI can affect a person’s life in many ways. Regardless of where a person is in the progression of MCI or dementia, speech therapy helps improve quality of life. The ultimate goal of speech therapy is to help people independently perform daily tasks, communicate clearly, and connect with others.

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