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Could I have memory loss already?
Everyone forgets things now and then. But it’s hard not to worry that it’s a sign of something more. We’re here to help you tell the difference.
Ever forget an appointment? How about the name of a neighbor you ran into at the supermarket? Have you struggled to find the right word or find your glasses? Good news, you're human. Everybody feels a little off their game once in a while.
But if it happens a lot, there's a chance it could be mild cognitive impairment (MCI). It's most common as people get older. About 8% of people ages 65 to 69 have it. And that number climbs to more than 25% when people reach ages 80 to 84.1 But MCI is not a natural part of aging. It's a health problem that you should pay attention to.
The first step? Try not to panic. Instead, learn as much as you can and get in touch with your doctor, says Morgan Daven. He's the vice president of health systems at the Alzheimer's Association. "If you have concerns, be proactive. Get yourself, or your loved one, checked by a health professional." (If you need a doctor you can trust, we can help.)
Keep reading for answers to some of the most common questions about MCI.
What exactly is MCI?
People with MCI have small problems with memory or thinking. They can still manage pretty well from day to day. But their friends and family members may notice little changes that worry them, says Daven. They often say their loved one just seems "off."
There are two kinds of MCI. One type mainly affects your memory (amnestic). You might forget important appointments or recent chats with friends. The other type can make it tough to pay attention or make good decisions (non-amnestic). It can even cause problems with visual perception. That means it can be a challenge to do things such as drive safely, walk on uneven surfaces or use the stairs.2
What causes MCI?
MCI can develop for multiple reasons. Age is a big one. There may also be a genetic link. If close family members have had MCI, you're more likely to get it, too. And some health conditions, such as depression, diabetes or a stroke, can also increase your risk of MCI.
Sometimes MCI is caused by conditions that can be treated. Depression, sleep apnea and medication side effects can all cause MCI symptoms. So can a head injury or drinking too much alcohol. When your doctor treats those issues, the MCI may go away, too.3
What are the symptoms of MCI?
Forgetfulness and confusion are possible symptoms. Look out for these as well:
- Increased forgetfulness
- Difficulty making plans or solving problems
- Becoming easily distracted
- Struggling to find the right word
- Trouble judging distances or climbing stairs4
To diagnose MCI, the doctor will take a complete medical history. They will listen carefully to reports from family members. And they'll use a simple test to help determine thinking abilities.
What's the difference between MCI and Alzheimer's disease?
MCI can make you forget things or have problems with your thinking. But you can still manage daily activities. People with Alzheimer's have symptoms that are much more severe. Their memory gets worse. They can't do ordinary tasks that they used to be able to do. And relatives and friends may even see changes in their personality.
But having MCI doesn't mean you'll go on to have Alzheimer's. "Many people diagnosed with MCI can stay the same for years," says Daven. "And some never progress to more severe stages of dementia," he adds. "In some cases, they may even revert to normal cognition."
MCI progresses to dementia at a rate of 10% to 15% per year. But with proper treatment and healthy habits, up to 31% of people with MCI may recover.5
What are the treatments for MCI?
The first thing to do if you're worried about yourself or someone else: See your health care provider. "There are so many potential causes of MCI. It's important for people to get their symptoms checked by their doctor," says Daven. There's no pill to cure MCI, but there are steps you can take to help right now.
In fact, improving habits can help at-risk older adults improve their learning and thinking abilities by 25%.6
"Being active, eating right, keeping your mind active and being with people can all help slow the process," says Gary Keilson, MD. He's chief of neurology at Reliant Medical Group, part of Optum, in Worcester, Massachusetts. That's because everything in your body is connected. "Your brain controls all your bodily functions. And if your body's not healthy, your brain isn't healthy either," he says.
Here's a closer look at how good-for-you habits can help keep your brain healthy.
Moving more. Regular exercise can help improve thinking and memory skills. It boosts blood flow to the brain. It strengthens regions involved with memory. And it reduces dementia risk by 15%. Aerobic exercise seems to be the most effective. That includes anything from taking a brisk walk around the block to swimming a few laps. For the best results, aim to work out twice a week or more, for about 45 minutes each session.7
Eating healthier. Aim for a high-plant meal plan such as the Mediterranean diet. It includes lots of veggies, fruits, nuts and olive oil, with just a little meat. In one study of people ages 58 to 99, those who ate the most leafy green veggies had better brain function than those who ate the least.
Researchers think plant-based diets help protect the brain. Fruits and veggies, such as apples, blueberries, and mushrooms, are rich in polyphenols. Those are chemicals that offer a shield against dementia.8 Learn more about how to eat healthier.
Losing a little weight. You may already know that extra pounds can lead to heart disease, diabetes and other medical problems. But recent studies show that a high body-mass index (BMI) is linked to brain health, too. Your BMI is a measurement that uses your height and weight to see how much body fat you have.
Some research links a high BMI with thinking problems.9 That may be because too much weight can contribute to the buildup of proteins that damage the brain. Talk to your doctor about the best ways to reach a healthy weight.
Learning new things. No need to go back to school. But learning new things can keep your brain healthy and even help prevent dementia. "Some researchers believe that having more years of education builds 'cognitive reserve,'" explains Daven. "That means your brain's ability to keep your thinking sharp despite brain changes. But formal education isn't the only way to build cognitive reserve. Learning art, a new language or a new musical instrument may also build cognitive reserve."
So take up a new hobby. Join a class at the community center. Or visit the library as often as you can. Studies show that keeping your mind active helps build up that cognitive reserve. Think of it as saving money for a rainy day. The more of a reserve you build up, the better you'll be at handling any mental declines in the future.
Staying connected. Loneliness is one of the biggest risk factors for dementia. So think about joining a club or a support group. Or pick up the phone. And, yes, go ahead and strike up a conversation with the cashier at the supermarket. Even better, do two brain-boosting activities at once. Take a walk with a neighbor or meet new friends at a woodworking class or a knitting workshop.
When people with MCI maintain social connections, their symptoms are less likely to get worse.10 Why? Researchers think interacting with other people is another good way to build up your cognitive reserve and even grow new networks of neurons. Spending time with people engages your brain in lots of different ways.
But remember: There isn't just one simple solution to staying mentally sharp. It's all about the little things you do every day.
"To take care of your brain, you need to take care of your body. Making sure you get proper sleep, eat healthfully and exercise," says Christopher Wilson, MD. He's medical director of neurology with American Health Network, part of Optum, in Avon, Indiana. "It's something everyone can work on."
- Neurology. Practice guideline update summary: mild cognitive impairment. Published December 27, 2017. Accessed Aug. 1, 2022.
- Dementia Australia. Mild cognitive impairment (MCI). Accessed August 1, 2022.
- Alzheimer’s.gov. What is mild cognitive impairment? Accessed August 1, 2022.
- Alzheimer’s Society. Mild cognitive impairment (MCI). Accessed August 1, 2022.
- The World Journal of Biological Psychiatry. Management of mild cognitive impairment (MCI): the need for national and international guidelines. Published October 2020. Accessed August 1, 2022.
- The Lancet. A 2 year multidomain intervention of diet, exercise, cognitive training, and vascular risk monitoring versus control to prevent cognitive decline in at-risk elderly people (FINGER): a randomised controlled trial. Published June 6, 2015. Accessed August 1, 2022.
- Dementia News. Regular exercise lowers the risk of early dementia. Accessed August 1, 2022.
- The Lancet. Dementia, prevention, intervention, and care: 2020 report of the Lancet Commission. Published July 30, 2020. Accessed August 1, 2022.
- Stroke. A primary care agenda for brain health: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Published March 15, 2021. Accessed August 1, 2022.
- American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease & Other Dementias. Study of the risk and preventive factors for progress of mild cognitive impairment to dementia. Published June 22, 2020. Accessed August 1, 2022.
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