With age often comes an increase in the number and frequency of memory slips—forgetting where you put your keys, blanking on the name of an acquaintance, etc. These experiences, in turn, fuel fears that one has Alzheimer's or another form of dementia, leading to one crucial question:
What's the difference between dementia and normal aging?
It's a challenging query to answer because what is considered "normal" aging for one person is not the same as what is normal for another.
For example, studies have shown that a person's educational background can provide some protection against the onset of cognitive issues later on in life by enhancing their cognitive reserve. Typically, the more years of formal schooling an individual has, the more likely they are to be able to retain their intellectual capacity as they age. However, as is often the case when dealing with dementia, this is not a hard and fast rule. People with multiple graduate degrees can still get Alzheimer's, while those who didn't make it past high school may never encounter cognitive issues.
Occupying the middle ground between normal aging and dementia lies a disorder known as Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI).
10 things to know about MCI:
- One-in-five older adults may have MCI: Increasing age is probably the most well-known and widely-accepted risk factor for MCI. Studies have indicated that anywhere from five to 20 percent of people over 65 struggle with MCI.
- Symptoms of mild cognitive impairment: Having trouble recalling the names of recent acquaintances, frequently misplacing important objects and being unable to follow the flow of normal conversation are all red flags that could indicate MCI. But the primary feature that distinguishes MCI from full-blown dementia is how much the person's cognitive issues are affecting their day-to-day lives. The more extreme the impact, the more likely it is that that individual has MCI.
- MCI changes the brain: While it's not always the case, the brains of people with MCI often undergo certain visible physical changes. MRI scans of cognitively impaired individual's brains have shown a large accumulation of plaques, impaired glucose processing (neurons use glucose as an important source of fuel), larger ventricles and a smaller hippocampus. These changes have also been associated with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia.
- Getting an early diagnosis can help: Going to the doctor at the first sign of cognitive issues that affect everyday life is important because getting a formal diagnosis can help a person with MCI or dementia to gain access to memory care clinics and other important resources. Knowing what the future might hold also enables an older adults and their family to make important plans for the future. (Learn more about Planning Ahead for Elder Care)
- How MCI is diagnosed: Finding the precise cause of cognitive impairment is tricky. Doctors will typically take a full medical and family history first, followed by a neurological exam, cognitive functioning evaluation(s), blood tests and brain scan(s).
- There's more than one type: There are two distinct sub-types of MCI—amnestic and non-amnestic. The majority of individuals (about two-thirds) with MCI have the amnestic variant, the main symptom of which is memory loss. Non-amnestic MCI involves other cognitive concerns such as impaired judgement, and having problems with organization and planning.
- There is no treatment: The FDA has yet to approve any treatments for MCI. Drugs used to treat Alzheimer's disease typically are not prescribed to people with MCI as the benefit of such interventions has yet to be proven in clinical trials.
- MCI may increase Alzheimer's risk: MCI may increase an individual's risk of developing Alzheimer's disease or another form of dementia by as much as three to five times, according to recent research.Though it's not yet possible for doctors to determine whether a particular person's MCI will eventually progress into dementia.
- Not everyone with MCI will develop dementia: Some individuals who have MCI stay stable and never develop dementia.
- Some types of MCI can be reversed: Not all cases of MCI signal the onset of a degenerative neurological condition. Cardiovascular disease, infections, even certain medications can also cause MCI. In these instances, cognitive symptoms may be reversible with better medication management or certain lifestyle changes—another reason why experts suggest seeing a doctor at the first sign of cognitive trouble.