What Is Cognitive Decline?

Category: Alzheimer's | Memory Care

According to the Alzheimer’s Association (ALZ), somewhere between 12 – 18% of patients over 60 experience mild cognitive impairment (MCI). The ALZ also notes that fewer than one in five people in the U.S. know what MCI is, believing that the symptoms are just “normal” parts of aging. Unfortunately, this is seldom the case. Often, MCI is an early sign of a more serious problem or, at the very least, a warning sign of a mild (and often treatable) problem.

While many people expect some degree of cognitive impairment as they age, it’s important to not brush off memory stumbles as just “aging.” If you have been concerned that you or a loved one is developing a cognitive disorder or cognitive disability, keep reading. 

The difference between cognitive decline and dementia

Elderly woman in wheelchair listening to music

According to the Cleveland Clinic, mild cognitive decline is when a person experiences a decline in cognitive abilities that is recognized by those close to them, even though it may not seem significant to the person because the lapses do not interfere with daily activities. In comparison, dementia is a broad term for cognitive decline that does interfere with daily activities.

Mild cognitive decline describes symptoms that may or may not be related to one of the possible neurocognitive disorders, but dementia is undoubtedly a neurocognitive disorder. According to the Cleveland Clinic, some researchers believe that more people with cognitive decline (even mild cognitive decline) will eventually develop dementia.

However, according to the National Institute on Aging (NIH), it has been estimated that only 10 – 20% of people with mild cognitive decline will develop Alzheimer’s or dementia within a year of diagnosis. Much like Alzheimer’s, it is thought that mild cognitive decline also has genetic factors that contribute to the likelihood of developing the symptoms.

What are the symptoms of cognitive decline? 

According to the NIH and the Cleveland Clinic, there are some warning signs to watch for in those who may be beginning to experience mild cognitive decline. Symptoms of cognitive decline include:

  • Not remembering to attend scheduled events or appointments.
  • Frequently misplacing things.
  • Having issues bringing commonly used words to mind (especially compared to other people your age).
  • Having a hard time understanding conversations.
  • Becoming frequently easily distracted.
  • Forgetting things that you would normally remember, such as birthdays, phone numbers, recent conversations, etc.
  • Difficulties making decisions, problem-solving, and/or completing projects.

What are the risk factors for mild cognitive impairment? 

According to the Mayo Clinic, risk factors for mild cognitive impairment (MCI) include:

  • Age (the older you are, the higher the risk).
  • A specific gene linked to Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Being diabetic.
  • High blood pressure.
  • High cholesterol.
  • Being overweight.
  • Depression.  
  • A sedentary lifestyle.
  • A lack of education.
  • Not often participating in socially and mentally stimulating activities.

What causes cognitive impairment? 

Older woman with headache sitting on couch

Let’s be honest, when you or a loved one begin to experience issues with your cognition, your first fear is likely going to be Alzheimer’s disease. While this is a small possibility, studies on mild cognitive impairment (MCI) are still pretty new, and there absolutely could be a simple reason for your symptoms, many of which are treatable.

For example, according to the Cleveland Clinic, some possible causes of MCI could include:

  • Mental status (anxiety, depression, and stress could all contribute to MCI).
  • Issues with the thyroid, kidneys, or liver.
  • Certain sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea and others.
  • Certain vitamin deficiencies (especially low vitamin B-12).
  • Eye and hearing problems.
  • Certain infections.
  • History of alcoholism.
  • Medical issues that affect adequate blood flow, such as a stroke, a tumor, or a brain injury.
  • Side effects from certain medications.
  • Normal pressure hydrocephalus.

Is it just cognitive impairment or an indicator or a more serious problem? 

Since roughly somewhere between one in 10 and one in 20 people who are becoming cognitively impaired will eventually be diagnosed with dementia (according to the NIH), it’s always a good idea to have your concerns addressed by a doctor. Especially considering that, according to the ALZ, even mild cognitive impairments can be one of the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Since there are now treatment options for Alzheimer’s disease, early diagnosis is key.

Is there anything you can do to prevent cognitive decline? 

According to the Mayo Clinic, cognitive impairment cannot always be prevented. However, studies suggest that there are multiple ways to adjust your lifestyle that may prevent or stave off developing cognitive impairment such as:

  • Getting enough exercise.
  • A healthy diet that incorporates a lot of fruits and vegetables, but not a lot of saturated fat.
  • Getting healthy sleep.
  • Quitting smoking.
  • Avoiding alcohol.
  • Reducing exposure to air pollution.
  • Avoiding head injury.
  • Maintaining a good social life.
  • Keeping your mind active with puzzles, games, and memory training.
  • Keeping your weight, blood sugar, blood pressure, and symptoms of depression in a healthy range.
  • Getting a hearing aid if you experience hearing issues.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that as many as 40% of dementia cases can be prevented or at least slowed down to give you more time with full cognitive capacity. Therefore, it is time to make lifestyle adjustments to preserve your cognitive functions. If you’re concerned that you’re already struggling with your memory, be sure to discuss these concerns with your doctor.


Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures. (2022).

Mild Cognitive Impairment. (2019).

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI). (2020).

The Truth About Aging and Dementia. (2021).

What is Mild Cognitive Impairment?. (2021).