Mild cognitive impairment (MCI)

4. What are the benefits of diagnosing MCI?

The main benefit of diagnosing MCI is that it helps to identify people who are at increased risk of developing dementia. They can then be offered information, advice and support. They can also be kept under review and if they do develop dementia, they should have this diagnosed sooner.

Anyone who is worried about their memory, or has any of the symptoms listed above, should see their GP. A thorough assessment might clear up any anxiety about the cause of symptoms. It may also lead to diagnosis of conditions (eg depression, high blood pressure, poor vision) that can be treated.

The assessment is the same as for suspected dementia. The GP will talk to the person about their symptoms, when they started and how they are affecting their daily life now. The person will have their physical health and any medication they are taking reviewed, and take tests to assess depression and mental abilities.

The GP may be able to make a clear diagnosis at this stage, or they might need to refer the person for more specialist assessment, often at a memory service. Diagnosis may require more than one appointment and may include more detailed assessment by a psychologist. A brain scan may be done, particularly if other potential causes (eg brain bleed, tumour) are suspected.

A doctor will use their own judgement to make the diagnosis. Research guidelines state that MCI should be diagnosed if the person shows all of the following:

  • symptoms (as listed above) are getting worse and cannot be otherwise explained
  • scores poorly for their age on a test of mental abilities
  • has minor or no problems with more complex daily activities.

If a person is diagnosed with MCI by a specialist, they will usually be discharged back to their GP. What happens next will vary. In some parts of the country, the person will be invited back to the GP or memory service after a set time (often 6 or 12 months) to see whether things have changed. In other parts of the country, they are asked to arrange an appointment themselves, at any time, if they feel their symptoms have got worse.

This is a period of uncertainty for the person and those around them, and they should be given information and advice, and counselling if needed. They may also be offered further support (see 'How is MCI treated?' below).

Many people who are diagnosed with MCI or early-stage dementia take the opportunity to plan ahead, for example by making a power of attorney.

A person diagnosed with MCI who drives - in contrast to someone with dementia - will not always need to tell DVLA (or DVA Northern Ireland). The doctor should be able to advise on this.