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Mild Cognitive Dementia

Mild cognitive dementia, also referred to as mild cognitive impairment (MCI), causes a small but noticeable decline in cognitive abilities, including memory and thinking skills. An individual who has mild cognitive dementia, especially when memory problems are involved, has an increased risk of developing another dementia such as Alzheimer’s at some time later in their life; however, it doesn’t always lead to full-scale dementia.

Mild cognitive dementia is often a transitional stage between the normal and expected cognitive decline associated with getting older and that of fully developed dementia. The cognitive changes associated with mild cognitive dementia are serious enough to be noticed by the person experiencing them and by others around them, but typically they aren’t serious enough to interfere with a person’s daily life or prohibit them from functioning independently.

Symptoms of Mild Cognitive Dementia

Mood swings or periodic forgetfulness may be a normal part of the aging process, but if symptoms become more severe or just “don’t feel right,” they should be discussed with a healthcare professional. The earlier any dementia, including mild cognitive dementia, is diagnosed, the sooner treatment can begin. Diagnosis also gives a person time to put long-term plans into place while they still have use of their faculties.

Fortunately, mild cognitive dementia typically does not interfere with a person’s day-to-day activities; therefore, it shouldn’t be feared, but should instead be a signal that it’s time to begin making plans in the event that any further mental deterioration occurs.

Symptoms of mild cognitive dementia include, but are not limited to:

  • Increased forgetfulness beyond that common to normal aging
  • Frequent and consistent loss of “train of thought”
  • Feeling overwhelmed when faced with a need to make decisions or plans
  • Struggling to interpret instructions
  • Feelings of depression, anxiety, apathy and/or irritability

Symptoms may continue to progressively worsen over time, may remain stable over long periods of time (years) or may actually improve as time goes on. In some cases, such as when the cognitive impairment is caused by a medication, mild cognitive dementia is mistakenly diagnosed.

Healthcare professionals classify mild cognitive dementia based on the thinking skills affected. When memory is the primary function affected, it’s referred to as “amnestic MCI.” Mild cognitive dementia that causes problems with any other cognitive function besides memory is referred to as “nonamnestic MCI.” Cognitive skills which may be affected by nonamnestic MCI include visual perception, ability to judge the sequence of steps necessary to complete a complex task or the ability to make sound decisions.

Brain or Physical Changes Associated with Mild Cognitive Dementia

The brain and physical changes associated with mild cognitive dementia are generally milder than those associated with dementia. Plaque builds up throughout much of the brain. The hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for memory, diminishes in size.

Causes/Risk Factors of Mild Cognitive Dementia

Currently, there’s no known cause for mild cognitive dementia. Some evidence suggests it may be the result of other types of dementia, which means the risk factors of other dementias apply. Those include:

  • Increased age
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol levels
  • Diabetes
  • Lack of exercise
  • Smoking
  • Lack of mental and/or social stimulation
  • Depression
  • Being overweight

Diagnosis, Treatment and Care of Mild Cognitive Dementia

No specific set of diagnostic tests exist to diagnose mild cognitive dementia; however, medical professionals will generally run tests to rule out other reasons for the symptoms. This means mild cognitive dementia is a “clinical” diagnosis. To make this diagnosis, a healthcare professional will:

  • Take a thorough personal and family medical history
  • Assess independent function and daily activities (comparing current function to a person’s “normal”)
  • Receive input from friends and family
  • Assessment of mental status (evaluating memory, judgment, planning, ability to process visual cues and other key thinking skills)
  • Neurological examination
  • Evaluate mood
  • Blood tests
  • Brain scans

If the healthcare professional experiences difficulties confirming the diagnosis, they may order biomarker tests such as cerebrospinal fluid tests and further brain imaging to determine if the mild cognitive dementia is the result of Alzheimer’s.

Current treatment is focused on helping patients improve their symptoms and in preventing or slowing down the progression of the disorder. Since there are no drugs designed specifically for the treatment of mild cognitive dementia, some healthcare professionals prescribe the same medications that are used to treat Alzheimer’s disease, especially if memory loss is present.

Certain coping strategies may be beneficial to help slow the decline of thinking skills. These include:

  • Controlling cardiovascular risk factors to protect the heart and blood vessels, which includes controlling blood pressure and cholesterol levels, discontinuing a smoking habit, maintaining a healthy weight, etc.
  • Regular exercise to benefit the heart and blood vessels and, therefore, the brain
  • Take part in socially engaging and mentally stimulating activities

Mild cognitive dementia is often evaluated every six months to gauge the progression of symptoms.

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