Far too often, we attribute changes in our memory and cognition to getting older, but experts say that persistent forgetfulness is in fact not considered a normal part of aging. That’s why it’s important to recognize the signs of mild cognitive impairment (MCI), which often precedes dementia. Though your memory is not the only thing that can be affected by MCI, looking out for some particular instances of forgetfulness could help tip you off to a serious cognitive problem in the making. Read on to learn which red flags could be an early sign of dementia, and how to slow its progression.
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Right now in the US, roughly 5.8 million people suffer from Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, says the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And while early signs of dementia often go unrecognized, sometimes dementia-like symptoms are caused by other underlying factors.
Thomas C. HammondMD, neurologist at Baptist Health’s Marcus Neuroscience Institute in Florida, spoke to best life about some of the alternative explanations for changes in one’s cognitive health. “In some cases, your symptoms may be caused by other physical or mental health problems. These include depression, sleep apnea, a head injury, lack of vitamin B-12, side effects of medicine, or problems with your thyroid,” Hammond says . “Treating those problems first may help ease or reverse your symptoms. Always see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis,” he recommends.
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The Alzheimer’s Association points out that up to 18 percent of adults over the age of 60 live with mild cognitive impairment, and very often, dementia is to blame. However, a recent national survey found that 82 percent of adults were unfamiliar with the condition or admitted to knowing little about it, making it very difficult for the average person to identify the symptoms which may lead to a dementia diagnosis.
“Mild cognitive impairment is often confused with normal aging because it is very subtle,” Maria Carrillo, chief science officer of the Alzheimer’s Association, told NPR in March. She added that the symptoms of MCI most often include “forgetting people’s names, forgetting perhaps that you’ve said something already, forgetting a story, forgetting words.”
Hammond adds that some people with MCI will also experience “non-amnestic” symptoms—those that are unrelated to memory. “This type affects thinking skills. You may struggle with planning or judgment, decision-making and/or concentration. You may also feel depressed, irritable, or anxious, or conversely have no interest in anything,” he explains.
Hammond says there’s one memory change that can be explained by normal aging: temporary forgetfulness, or slowed memory retrieval. Though you may struggle in the moment to recall a name or remember where you put your keys, “these memory bits come back in 10-15 minutes or sometimes hours later” if dementia is not the cause, he explains. “These minor glitches in memory are not a sign of evolving dementia or cognitive impairment. Forgetting conversations one has had or appointments that are important are more worrisome and concerning for a significant early cognitive impairment,” Hammond says.
The neurologist adds that those affected by dementia are often in denial that there is anything wrong, and notes that family members and friends are often the ones to identify early symptoms. For this reason, “it is often a challenge to get patients into the medical system early. This will be a challenge for physicians and caregivers.”
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While there is no cure for mild cognitive impairment or dementia, you may be able to prevent your symptoms from getting worse. “To ward off cognitive problems later in life, people should attempt to keep cognitively engaged in midlife by reading, writing, using the computer for e-mail, and participating in social activities such as card games or book clubs,” suggests Hammond. He also recommends doing aerobic exercise for at least 30 minutes per day, five days per week. “Regular aerobic exercise is felt to have both neuroprotective and potentially neurorestorative benefits in patients with memory and cognitive disorders.”
And, for those experiencing early signs of cognitive impairment, there’s some good news: MCI doesn’t always turn into dementia. The Alzheimer Association’s report states that “over a five- to 10-year period after a diagnosis of MCI due to Alzheimer’s disease, 30 to 50 percent of people progress to Alzheimer’s dementia.”
Speak with your doctor about minimizing your risk of dementia and slowing your symptoms’ progression if you notice signs of MCI.
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