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Is Mild Cognitive Impairment Dementia?

July 19, 2023


Imagine this scenario: you’re sitting with your loved one reminiscing about a very special time in your life and your loved one struggles to recall an important part of the story that used to bring them so much joy. Is this simply a mere slip of memory or is it something more?


Today, we’re going to unravel the mystery and learn the difference between memory loss and cognitive impairment.


Whether you’re an individual helping an older loved one to navigate the challenges that often come with aging or a professional working with more older adults. You’re in the right place.


What’s the difference between memory loss and cognitive impairment?

When it comes to aging words, like memory loss in cognitive impairment are often used interchangeably. This can lead to a lot of confusion for the people who are experiencing the memory loss or cognitive impairment for their caregivers and for professionals. And this is why it’s really important to differentiate the difference between memory loss and cognitive impairment, because it has important implications for treatment and care.


So let’s dive in.


Memory loss and cognitive impairment are related, but they’re not the same. Memory loss refers specifically to difficulty recalling information that is stored in the brain, like recalling memories or events or. Important family stories or recipes.


Cognitive impairment on the other hand. Includes a wide range of cognitive processes that happen in the brain. It can include memory, but it doesn’t stop at memory. So it can include how quickly we process information, how we solve problems. Our judgment in solving complex problems or making decisions. Problem-solving attention and language skills. So as you can see, cognitive impairment covers so many areas of how our brain functions, where memory loss is just focused on memory and recalling certain events or difficulty recalling certain events.


What’s tricky is that memory is a critical component of cognitive functioning. And so when people have memory loss, It can fundamentally impact our cognitive functioning.


Memory loss can show up in different ways, like forgetting names, forgetting important parts of stories, forgetting family recipes, and an experiencing difficulties in learning something new.


Memory loss is often caused by conditions that impact the brain like mild cognitive impairment or dementia disorders, but can also be due to other things like stress, anxiety, depression, substance use. As well as other sorts of conditions that might be treatable or reversible. Addressing these underlying causes can oftentimes improve memory.


Cognitive impairment encompasses a broader range of functions that our brain is responsible for. Like. Problem solving and decision-making how quickly we process information. Our judgment attention, language and spatial orientation and memory. So as you can see, cognitive impairment encompasses many other cognitive functions while memory loss only focuses on memory.


What’s The Difference Between Mild Cognitive Impairment & Dementia?

Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) is a clinical condition in which a person is experiencing some impairment in their cognitive functioning (e.g., how quickly they process information, problem solving, remembering an and so on), but not at the level that it’s interfering with day-to-day functioning -person can still typically live alone, manage their affairs, drive a car and so on.


It’s noteworthy that about 12 to 18% of people 60 years old and older are living with mild cognitive impairment.


Often mild cognitive impairment is due to a dementia disorder like Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, Lewy body dementia, and so on.


Mild cognitive impairment is also the beginning stage when a person does develop dementia of dementia. With that said about 10 to 15% of people living with mild cognitive impairment each year will develop dementia. Just because you have mild cognitive impairment doesn’t mean that you will develop dementia just means that your risk is higher.


There are many things that you can do to maintain brain health, even if you do have mild cognitive impairment or dementia disorder. What’s also important to know is that more than 40% of Americans who are older adults worry that they’re going to develop cognitive impairment or dementia. And I get it. It’s a scary thing, but like I said, there’s a lot that you can do to optimize your brain health.


So while a lot of people are afraid of cognitive impairment and dementia it’s estimated that 80% of Americans do not have a good understanding of dementia disorders, mild cognitive impairment, and so on. And so I’m so glad you’re here listening and learning.


Are you therapist, social worker, counselor, psychologist working with older adults?  If you’re like most therapists, you haven’t had training addressing cognitive issues in therapy leaving you feeling ineffective, stuck, and unsure of how to best help your client.

You’re not alone. I created a free 10-min video training where I walk you through 5 steps for helping your clients presenting with memory loss.

Get access to this free training and a BONUS workbook that you can start using in your clinic today.


Regina Koepp, PsyD, ABPP

Dr. Regina Koepp is a board certified clinical psychologist, clinical geropsychologist, and founder and director of the Center for Mental Health & Aging: the “go to” place online for mental health and aging. She is currently the lead medical psychologist at University of Vermont Medical Center. Dr. Koepp is a sought after speaker on the topics of mental health and aging, caregiving, ageism, resilience, sexual health and aging, intimacy in the context of life altering Illness, and dementia and sexual expression. Learn more about Dr. Regina Koepp here.