Straight Talk: Mild Cognitive Impairment

Contributed by: Dennis Fortier, President, Medical Care Corporation

Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) is a term we are seeing more and more frequently in the general press.  Unfortunately, efforts to clarify its meaning often serve to further confuse the issue.

Case in point is a lengthy discussion about MCI, with an associate professor of psychiatry, published recently in the New York Times "New Old Age" blog.  While lots of important ground is covered in the interview, most of the information is geared toward MCI caused by Alzheimer's disease, without proper emphasis and clarity about other, arguably more common causes of MCI.  Population-based studies suggest that prevalence of MCI cases caused by depression, poorly controlled diabetes, sleep-disorders, thyroid conditions, alcohol/drug abuse, medications, and cancer treatments, far exceed the number of cases caused by early stage Alzheimer's disease.

That oversight, that most MCI is caused by common, treatable, medical conditions and not early Alzheimer's disease, undermines the clarity of the piece.  Most of the discussion is geared toward understanding MCI caused by Alzheimer's disease, as opposed to MCI caused by the many other, more common, medical conditions that impair cognition.

This confusion about MCI and the proclivity to attribute MCI to Alzheimer's disease are not new phenomena.  I wrote about it more than three years ago in a post about MCI converting to Alzheimer's disease. In the years since, increased interest in cognitive health has brought increased coverage of these issues.  Unfortunately, much of the coverage is poorly presented and does not aid clarity.

Here is a constructive way to understand the term MCI: While some decline in cognitive function is normal with aging, MCI refers to changes that are more severe than would be expected at a given age, but not so severe as to prevent a self-reliant lifestyle. When cognitive decline is severe enough to prevent self-reliance, we use the term "dementia".  In this way, cognitive health can be viewed as a continuum from "normal aging" to "MCI" to "dementia". One crosses from MCI into dementia when the cognitive decline is severe enough to prevent effective self-care.


  1. I was hoping that you would wrap up by reinforcing that people should discuss other probably causes of MCI (both treatable and not) rather than accepting an automatic diagnosis of Alzheimer's. But thanks for highlighting an important issue.

  2. Great point, Laura! Primary care physicians are not immune to the confusion around the term "MCI" and far too many diagnose AD when other conditions are either causing or contributing to the problem. Thanks for highlighting this point.

  3. Good to see some fresh content on this blog. For a while there I thought it was no longer a going concern.
    More please!

  4. James, please be my guest and link to any information you think would benefit your communities.