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What are the differences between Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) and dementia?

by Sue Lanza

With dementia and Alzheimer's disease being addressed in most health care budget conversations, there is a new term we have been hearing about that warrants discussion. How does Mild Cognitive Impairment or MCI, as it is abbreviated, fit into the health care game and what do you need to know about it?

For years, you may have heard of dementia and Alzheimer's disease, the most common form of dementia, but now researchers have added a new term to the mix: Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI).

What is Dementia?

Today, we need to take a step back and review the definition of dementia to understand where mild cognitive impairment fits in. Dementia is thought to be a syndrome or group of symptoms that show impairments in areas such as cognitive skills (memory, speech, thinking), functional abilities (daily activities such as dressing, eating, walking) and in mood and behavior. In the simplest terms, dementia is caused by brain cells in key areas dying off. Some researchers actually feel that there are over 70 different types of dementia. The reason we hear Alzheimer's disease and the term dementia often used interchangeably is because Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia.

Some of the common symptoms of dementia are:

  • Language problems
  • Judgment and abstract thinking issues
  • Personality or behavior changes
  • Memory loss or impairment
  • Disorientation to time or place

Dementia is a progressive disease that interferes with daily activities and quality of life. Often the disruption to one area of an individual's life is what brings the disease to the forefront. At this time, there is no cure but medications are on the market that claims to stop some of the further development of the disease. Research continues but there is much that is unknown about dementia.

What Is Mild Cognitive Impairment?

Mild cognitive impairment is not dementia. It is defined as a noted problem with cognition or brain processing that is unusual for a person's age or education. If you recall from the dementia definition, there were issues seen in a number of areas of brain functioning--with MCI, it is only cognitive functioning that is impaired. The other major difference between MCI and dementia is that any of the symptoms that are seen in mild cognitive impairment do not cause any interference with the person's daily level of activities. We know that once dementia symptoms have been seen, there are quality of life disruptions already in place.

MCI matches dementia in the fact that the cause of the syndrome is also unknown yet the medical community feels that it could be triggered by stress or illness. Some physicians and researchers feel that MCI can be viewed as a defining line between regular aging and dementia. In fact, some studies point to the fact that approximately 10-15 percent of all MCI cases seem to develop into some form of dementia.

Knowing the relationship that could link mild cognitive impairment with dementia makes this an important topic to follow in the future. If you suspect that you or a loved one has some cognitive concerns that are more than just the usual forgetfulness we all experience, take the time to have it checked out.