Alzheimer's, dementia and other forms of cognitive impairment are conditions causing much fear because of their growing prevalence, incurability and life-changing consequences.
According to Alzheimer's Disease International, someone develops dementia every 3 seconds. As of 2020, 55 million people worldwide are living with dementia. This number is expected to reach 78 million by 2030.
Mild changes in memory and other thinking skills are common as we age. We’ve all experienced an older relative or friend forgetting someone’s name or misplacing their glasses or keys. These occasional lapses in memory or attention are not typically a cause for concern. But, regularly forgetting to turn off the stove, being unable to recall recent conversations or getting lost in familiar places could be signs of a more significant problem.
Although cognitive decline is common with age, certain forms can indicate a more severe condition. There are particular memory loss and thinking issues seen in mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or dementia that are not part of normal aging.
As we age, subtle changes in our memory occur naturally as part of the aging process. Unfortunately, these changes can happen sooner than anticipated or faster than expected.
Researchers believe that MCI is the precursor to dementia for some individuals. It’s the stage between normal age-related mental changes and early-stage dementia. However, not all individuals diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment are destined to develop dementia.
When memory loss prevents someone from performing daily tasks and continuing established roles in life, it becomes a health concern that needs further evaluation by a healthcare professional.
Several things can cause memory problems or make normal age-related memory changes worse. Possible causes include a medication side effect, a mental or physical health issue, sleep problems or a vitamin deficiency. Identifying and treating the underlying cause can improve memory.
But if no underlying causes for changes in memory are found, it’s wise to look closely at the symptoms and have a professional cognitive assessment.
Symptoms of Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI)
Forgetting recent events, planned events or appointments
Forgetting names of friends and family members
Difficulty coming up with the desired word
Difficulty understanding written or verbal communication
Easily distracted and loses focus
May struggle with (but can complete) complex tasks such as paying bills, shopping, cooking and driving
Experiences many memory impairments but can still function independently
Symptoms of Dementia
People with dementia endure many of the symptoms of MCI. But, as dementia progresses, more severe impairments develop, including:
Inability to perform complex daily tasks such as shopping or driving
Loss of awareness of their memory loss
Using poor judgment
Declining ability to solve problems
Severe memory, language and cognition impairment requiring assistance with everyday self-care
Some mental healthcare practitioners, such as neuropsychologists, have specialized training in assessing and treating memory and cognitive problems. Early detection of memory decline can be helpful in treating and managing declining cognitive functions to improve a person’s quality of life.