The Difference Between Dementia and Mild Cognitive Impairment

We often talk about the millions of individuals across the globe who are currently suffering from dementia, however, the number of those truly affected may be grossly underestimated. For millions of others, they are not diagnosed with dementia, but mild cognitive impairment (MCI) – a condition in which affects cognition, but does not yet interfere with their day-to-day life.

In many cases, MCI will develop into Alzheimer’s. Should it be a separate diagnosis? How does MCI differ from the early stages of dementia? How does someone know whether or not their symptoms will progress? What is MCI and how does it relate to dementia?

What is Mild Cognitive Impairment?

It’s important to first say, MCI is not dementia. It is, however, a condition that causes issues with cognition when compared to others of the same age or level of education. In comparison to Alzheimer’s, for instance, MCI only impairs cognitive functioning. More importantly, this impairment does not interfere with one’s daily life or personality.

MCI is similar to dementia and Alzheimer’s in that the exact cause is not known. There is agreement within the medical community that MCI may be caused by stress, illness, or specific changes in the brain. Although MCI is not progressive in nature, it’s said that approximately 10 to 15 percent of all cases will develop into dementia. In that sense, it is viewed by many as the earliest stage of this degenerative condition.

Misleading Diagnosis of Alzheimer’s

As reported in the Archives of Neurology, it’s been stated that 99.8 percent of patients who are diagnosed with very mild Alzheimer’s, would technically be considered to have MCI. What does this mean for doctors, families, and, patients?

Well, it comes down to independent functioning and although the criteria may vary from person-to-person, anyone who can still perform a number of daily activities would be considered to have MCI. This applies to individuals who function independently, yet need assistance with activities such as paying their bills or cooking.

Basically, individuals who suffer from MCI will have issues with their memory, as well as language, executive functioning, or even sensory perception. The symptoms will most certainly be noticeable, however, the degree of cognitive decline is not as severe as it is in cases of dementia.

This is very important because as mentioned earlier, not everyone who suffers from MCI will develop dementia or Alzheimer’s. Then again, for those who are truly suffering from the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s it’s important that they’re given an accurate diagnosis. If they are told that they have MCI, this could be a major disservice to the individual diagnosed, as well as their family.

At this point in time, research is still being conducted, focusing on which cases of MCI will develop into dementia. For the most part, research has focused on the transition from MCI to Alzheimer’s disease. Not only is Alzheimer’s the most common form of dementia, but it also the most understood based on significant amounts of research.

One approach is to examine brain scans in order to detect changes in both the functioning and structure of one’s brain. If MCI is caused by changes in the brain, it’s possible that the damage is of a lesser degree. This is why researchers are continuing to focus on the connection between MCI and markers of Alzheimer’s and dementia, such as plaques and tangles, reduced blood flow to the brain, and a reduced ability to metabolize glucose in certain areas of the brain.

If you’re diagnosed with MCI, what does this mean for you and your family? It can be stressful and overwhelming, not knowing if your symptoms will remain the same, improve, or worsen. Until more research is uncovered, it’s recommended that individuals affected by MCI, continue to maintain an active and balanced lifestyle.

A Mediterranean diet has been shown to significantly improve brain function and if this is the case, a balanced diet could most certainly influence one’s mental health and level of cognition. In one specific study, those who consumed a Mediterranean diet, were shown to have a 48 percent lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

Hopefully one day in the near future, we’ll uncover more regarding MCI and why some cases progress into dementia, while others do not. If we uncover more about MCI, it’s possible that early intervention could make a dramatic difference in the outcome of one’s condition.

For now, if you or a loved one are displaying issues regarding memory loss or thinking skills, approach your doctor. Take notes of every symptom – when did it occur and for how long? Was there anything specific that triggered that symptom? This information will be useful when making a proper diagnosis.

Moving forward, be aware of any changes in symptoms – as this could mean that MCI is actually the earliest stages of dementia. It’s important to be aware of how MCI and dementia overlap and differ, so that doctors and patients are able to better understand symptoms of cognitive impairment. This will also help them eliminate possible causes, such as a vitamin deficiency, anemia, or stress.

For more information regarding the signs and symptoms of MCI, please visit Alzheimer’s Association for further details. If in doubt, please see your doctor – the sooner a diagnosis is made, the greater your options are in terms of potential treatments.

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