Why It’s Essential to Increase Awareness of Mild Cognitive Impairment

Columnist Ray Burow explains why a proper MCI diagnosis can be beneficial

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by Ray Burow |

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It seems that almost everyone knows someone with Alzheimer’s disease. If you’re reading this column, you’re likely either acquainted with a friend or loved one in the fight, or you’re fighting the battle yourself.

About 6.5 million people age 65 and older are currently living with Alzheimer’s in the United States, so it makes sense that we rub shoulders. Yet few of us are familiar with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), which is often an early sign of the disease.

What is mild cognitive impairment?

MCI can affect a person’s ability to think clearly or cause other noticeable cognitive changes. However, people diagnosed with MCI can still care for themselves and, for the most part, go about living normal lives. If you or a loved one are forgetting things you’d typically remember, having trouble finding the right words during a conversation, or losing things often, don’t hesitate to consult a doctor.

The Alzheimer’s Association notes that a number of issues may cause MCI and that, for some people, the condition is an early sign of Alzheimer’s. It’s estimated that 10–15% of people living with MCI go on to develop dementia each year.

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Since MCI can be a harbinger of Alzheimer’s, getting diagnosed can help patients get early treatment, which may mitigate symptoms or slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

The importance of identifying the condition has even been backed up by doctors: A special report about MCI, published by the Alzheimer’s Association this year, found that 98% of primary care physicians (PCPs) believe it’s essential to diagnose MCI.

However, the report also found that many doctors are uncomfortable doing so. About 35% of PCPs hesitate to diagnose MCI, while 51% hesitate to diagnose MCI due to Alzheimer’s disease.

Reasons for reticence

It’s not entirely clear why some medical professionals are slow to diagnose mild cognitive disorders, but there are a few possible barriers.

According to a 2020 article in The Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease, PCPs might feel ill-equipped to make a diagnosis because of limited cognitive assessment training. They’re unsure how to monitor cognitive performance, what steps to take if MCI is detected, how to explain the test results, and whether they should refer the patient to a specialist. Some doctors also struggle with how the diagnosis might affect patients and their families. Will a diagnosis benefit them?

I cannot speak to the barriers PCPs may face. But from a family member’s perspective, I can wholeheartedly attest to the benefits of diagnosing MCI for both patients and their families.

If you or a loved one has mild cognitive impairment, not knowing won’t change the fact that you have it, and it also won’t slow the progression or provide an opportunity to prepare for what lies ahead. Imagine having cancer or another devastating disease and not knowing it. You should at least have the chance to choose — or not choose — treatment.

What you can do

Early detection of MCI is critical, so seeing a physician who’s uncomfortable making the diagnosis is useless. Have a frank discussion with your healthcare provider to learn if they’ll make the diagnosis, no matter the outcome of the tests. Find out if they’re comfortable making a cognitive assessment or start the entire process by seeing someone who is. If your health insurance allows, see a neurologist or another doctor who specializes in brain function. Call your local Alzheimer’s Association chapter and ask for referrals or resources. Take a Self-Administered Gerocognitive Exam, or SAGE test, to evaluate your thinking process and make the results available to your health provider.

Early detection was vital for my mother, who was able to manage symptoms of Alzheimer’s and MCI for a long time. Please don’t put it off. You know in your heart what’s going on in your head. Keep searching for answers until you get them.

Note: Alzheimer’s News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Alzheimer’s News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to Alzheimer’s disease.


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