Why Mild Cognitive Impairment Goes Undetected

undetected mild cognitive impairment

People start to lose their train of thought and forget things as they age. This has come to be known as a fact of life that we tend to take for granted, never looking further into it. However, new studies are revealing a more concerning reality. These mental and memory changes can be signs of Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), which often goes undetected. In about half of the cases, unchecked MCI can progress to Alzheimer’s disease.

What Is Mild Cognitive Impairment?

Mild Cognitive Impairment, or MCI, can be described as a minor decline in the mental functions that appear as we age, such as persistently finding it hard to find the right words or to follow instructions, forgetting things more often, or starting to show more signs of depression, anxiety, or short temper. We recognize these as ‘slips’ in memory or thoughts that are noticeable over a period of time but are not bad enough to disrupt everyday activities.

While it is standard practice to accept them as a natural occurrence that comes with age, we should be taking them as telltale signs of serious cognitive decline and conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of Dementia. For example, clumps of beta-amyloid protein called plaques, tangles of tau proteins, as well as microscopic clumps of a protein called Lewy bodies can cause MCI but are also associated with Alzheimer’s disease if they appear at a greater degree.

Why MCI Goes Undetected

However, these telltale signs are dismissed or ignored. According to a 2023 study on the detection of MCI, it was found that only 8% of the cases with Mild Cognitive Impairment were diagnosed. Applied to the general population of over 65, this means that about 7.4 million cases of MCI remain undiagnosed. 

Why does MCI go undetected though? One reason is because its symptoms are progressing slowly and subtly, they are not as drastic as in Alzheimer’s, and most of the time they are misinterpreted as normal aging. People with MCI are still functional, and they adapt their behavior to adjust to MCI, like avoiding “driving at night because orientation is harder when it’s dark”, as Soeren Mattke, MD, DSc, director of the Center for Improving Chronic Illness told Health.com.

Another reason is that the term Mild Cognitive Impairment does not describe a singular condition; it includes several conditions that can have a number of causes and outcomes. A third, very important factor is awareness; a survey commissioned by the Alzheimer’s Association found that fewer than 18% of Americans are familiar with MCI, while More than 2 in 5 Americans (43%) report they have never heard of MCI.

Why Early Detection For MCI Can Be a Game Changer

Considering the above, it’s vital to add that the lack of early MCI detection is inversely proportional to its importance. Because understanding why Mild Cognitive Impairment goes undetected is a critical question, For one, MCI is not always untreatable, so recognizing and addressing the condition could significantly improve one’s life conditions. For example, MCI can also be caused by certain anticholinergic drugs or alcohol consumption, and removing these factors can reduce MCI.

What is more important, however, since the most common cause for MCI is Alzheimer’s, is to detect MCI early enough to slow down its progression towards a more serious condition. Studies suggest that mild cognitive impairment is an early symptom of Alzheimer’s disease in about half of cases and progresses to dementia at a rate of 10% to 15% per year.

How To Detect Mild Cognitive Impairment

How can you tell you are experiencing symptoms of MCI? Symptoms can be slow in progress and so easy to miss in everyday life. If however a person in your family or a friend notices changes in your memory, mental abilities, or mood,  it might be time to check yourself for MCI. There are a number of tests that you can take, such as the  Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MoCA), the Short Test of Mental Status (STMS), and the Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE).

All three include a short questionnaire asking you to use your short-term memory and your orientation, attention, and calculation skills, among other things. Taking a different approach, the LANGaware cognitive assessment asks you to record your voice describing a picture or an everyday task.

Taking Charge of Your Cognitive Health 

So if you think you’re experiencing the symptoms of MCI, it would be better to consider your choices on early detection; don’t shrug it off and pin it to your age. MCI is easy to detect, and invaluable to detect early. Finding the time to test your cognitive abilities before MCI leads to worse conditions can change your life for the better.

Kostis Pattakos

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