More studies seek people with mild cognitive impairment

By Alzheimer's Prevention Bulletin

In order to get ahead of Alzheimer’s disease earlier, more and more research studies are seeking people without changes to their memory and thinking along with those with a condition known as mild cognitive impairment (MCI). But what exactly is mild cognitive impairment? And how do you know if you have it?

Let’s take some time to explore MCI to learn what it is and what it isn’t. To help us, we’ve invited Po-Heng Tsai, MD, to answer a few questions. Dr. Tsai is a behavioral neurologist at Banner Alzheimer’s Institute in Phoenix and a clinical assistant professor of neurology at the University of Arizona College of Medicine Phoenix.

What is MCI?

MCI is the period of time between normal memory and thinking, and dementia. It includes impairment in thinking skills that goes beyond normal age-related changes but does not meet the criteria for dementia. With age we expect to see some changes in learning, memory and speed of thinking. However, with MCI the changes are more pronounced.

People with MCI can experience some changes in everyday life. But MCI doesn’t interfere with their ability to complete daily tasks such as shopping, household chores and managing money.

While people with MCI may have a higher risk for developing dementia, not all people with MCI get worse. Some people never progress to dementia, and in a small number of cases, people can return to normal memory and thinking.

Are there different ways MCI can impact memory and thinking?

Yes. MCI can be defined by different subtypes depending on how it impacts your thinking skills. A person can have symptoms in one or more areas of cognition. These include:

  • Memory – new learning, recall and retrieval of information
  • Attention – concentration and focus
  • Language – ability to come up with words, name items, understand others
  • Visuospatial function – understanding spatial relationships
  • Executive function – problem solving, reasoning, controlling behavior 

People who have problems with memory have what is called amnestic MCI. Twice as many people have amnestic MCI versus non-amnestic MCI where memory is not impaired. Amnestic MCI is more often a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease. It’s important to note there are other reasons why people experience memory and thinking problems besides Alzheimer’s disease.

What else can cause memory and thinking problems?

There are several conditions that can impact our ability to think well including medical illnesses such as sleep apnea, diabetes, stroke, low thyroid function, vitamin deficiency or urinary tract infections; psychiatric changes such as mood or anxiety; and drug side effects and medication interactions. Many of these are reversible with the right treatment. If you are concerned about your memory and thinking, please visit your primary care physician for a full evaluation.

Why are more studies looking for people with MCI?

Researchers believe past studies of medications to combat Alzheimer’s have failed because we started too late after symptoms were already present. So many current treatment studies are seeking people with beginning changes in memory and thinking to see if earlier treatment can stop the disease. These trials often include people with MCI.

What should I do if I’m concerned about my memory and thinking?

Start with a visit to your doctor. A complete evaluation and a discussion of your symptoms will help both you and your doctor understand what might be causing your symptoms. Your doctor may do a cognitive screening or suggest a neuropsychological evaluation to get a better understanding of the changes you are experiencing.

It’s never too early or too late to start working on your brain health. We know that these six activities can increase brain health:

  • Exercising regularly
  • Stimulating your brain with puzzles and word games
  • Spending time with friends and family
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Eating a heart healthy diet
  • Reducing stress

Finally, consider joining an Alzheimer’s disease research study. There are many types of studies available for people with and without memory impairment. Some are simply online studies while others focus on prevention and caregivers. Check out the current listings at the Alzheimer’s Prevention Registry.