Mild cognitive impairment (MCI)

Mild cognitive impairment is when a person starts to have problems with their memory or thinking. It can be a sign of a disease that will eventually cause dementia but MCI is not dementia and can be caused by other health problems.

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI)
Save this information

What is mild cognitive impairment (MCI)?

Mild cognitive impairment is when a person starts to have problems with their memory or thinking. These may cause difficulties, but not so much that they interfere with doing everyday tasks.

For some people MCI is an early sign of a disease that will eventually cause dementia. However, MCI is not dementia. It can be caused by other health problems, such as sleep disorders or the side effects of medicines.

Some mental abilities, such as memory and concentration, can become less reliable as a person gets older. This often becomes more noticeable around age 60 and older. It can be frustrating, but it rarely stops a person from doing normal everyday activities. 

However, some people feel these changes more quickly, and may become worried that something is wrong with them.

If a person regularly has difficulty doing certain mental tasks they used to do very easily, it may be a sign that they have ‘mild cognitive impairment’.

Mild means that, although symptoms may be troubling, the person is still able to manage themselves well and do most everyday activities. 

Cognitive roughly means 'thinking' but also includes the abilities to learn, remember, understand, pay attention, communicate, or process sensory information.

Impairment means not working as well as expected for the person’s age and background.

Symptoms of mild cognitive impairment

Many people struggle with their memory or thinking from time to time. This can easily happen when a person is feeling tired, unwell or stressed. It can happen more often as they get older.

However, if problems with thinking continue for more than a few months, it could be a sign that they have MCI.

MCI involves problems with one or more thinking skills. For example:

  • memory or learning – difficulties remembering recent events or learning new things 
  • reasoning – struggling  to make decisions or work through everyday problems 
  • attention – finding it more challenging to focus on a task or filter out distractions
  • language – having difficulties finding the right word in conversation
  • loss of interest or motivation – less interest in usual activities or hobbies. 

People with MCI often have difficulties remembering things as well as they once did. Others describe more of a ‘brain fog’ where they feel unable to think clearly.

Is MCI different to dementia?

Having MCI is not the same as having dementia. A person with MCI has milder symptoms, which means they are still able to do most everyday tasks without support. 

MCI can be caused by lots of different health problems, whereas dementia is always caused by a disease that damages the brain.

Dementia is progressive, which means it always gets worse over time. This isn’t always the case for MCI.

Are you worried about possible dementia symptoms?

If you're worried that you or someone else may have dementia, complete our checklist and show it to a GP or health professional to help describe your symptoms.

Complete the symptoms checklist
Previous Section
You are on the first page