New research published in the journal Neurology offers hope for those who face mild cognitive impairment (MCI).1
Investigators discovered that MCI could be reversed in certain individuals with a high education level and excellent written language skills.
Let’s explore MCI in older adults and see what this new research means for you or a loved one.
What is MCI?
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, MCI causes cognitive changes that are serious enough to be noticed by the person affected and by family members and friends.2 However, they’re not serious enough to affect the individual’s ability to carry out everyday activities. Approximately 12 to 18 percent of people aged 60 or older live with MCI.
What Causes MCI?
The causes of MCI vary and can include degenerative brain disease, such as Alzheimer’s disease, in which case, MCI is frequently a precursor to full-blown dementia.
However, there are some more surprising causes of MCI, including stroke or vascular disease and a medication side effect.
According to Harvard Medical school, there are two types of mild cognitive impairment. Amnestic MCI is memory-specific and marked by signs of forgetting conversations and misplacing items. Conversely, non-amnestic MCI involves changes in other brain activities, such as losing train of thought during conversations, or trouble accomplishing certain tasks like bill paying.
Reversing MCI is Possible
Researchers at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, wanted to explore whether it’s possible to reverse MCI. They based their study on a cohort of more than 600 women, age 75 and older.
The participants were from the Nun Study, a study of aging and cognition among members of the School Sisters of Notre Dame. All were 75 and older at baseline, which spanned from 1991 to 1993. About 14.5 percent were older than 90 years. These women were highly educated – 84.5 percent had earned an undergraduate or graduate degree.
The exciting part about this study is that about a third of those women who were diagnosed with MCI reverted to normal cognition at some point during the follow-up.
Study author Suzanne Tyas, PhD, says this sends an “encouraging message” to anyone suffering from this common form of memory loss. But there’s more…
Reversing MCI Happens Frequently
Dr. Tyas says the new study shows that reversing MCI is not as rare as once believed. In fact, it occurs relatively frequently among certain groups of people.
“This is encouraging because some people think that if they have a diagnosis of MCI, they are inevitably going to decline to dementia,” she adds.
While this study is groundbreaking, it isn’t the first study that links higher education to improved cognitive health in later years. But there are some differences.
The researchers found a significant association with good grades in high school English but not other subjects. Plus, they found that written language skills (idea density and grammatical complexity) were significant predictors of MCI reversal.
“Those with high levels of idea density were four times more likely to improve to normal cognition than progress to dementia, and the effect was even stronger for grammatical structure,” Dr. Tyas states. “Those individuals with higher levels were almost six times more likely to improve than decline.”
It turns out that those with this “cognitive reserve” have a significantly greater chance of reversing MCI and returning to normal cognition (NC) than progressing from MCI to dementia.
Staving Off MCI
It’s important to add that your education level—which you might not be able to do anything about right now—isn’t the only thing that can preserve cognitive function over the long term.
Around here, we often discuss the link between a healthy lifestyle and a healthy brain. A slew of studies has borne this out. For example, a 2015 randomized controlled trial found less cognitive decline over two years in older adults who embraced a healthy lifestyle.3
In addition, The American Academy of Neurology (AAN) promotes a healthy lifestyle, especially regular exercise.4 The AAN states that exercise can offer mental stimulation while boosting blood flow to the brain. They go on to say that exercise may even prompt the release of molecules that repair brain cells and create connections between them. When this happens, your memory can improve.
What does a healthy lifestyle entail?
A healthy diet, regular exercise, and social engagement, for starters. Dr. Joel Salinas, a neurologist at Harvard, discussed the impact of healthy habits in a university newsletter.5
He noted that besides exercise, diet, and social connection, folks should also engage in mentally stimulating activities (especially learning new things) and take medications as prescribed.
“The people who spend the most time cognitively stable are often the ones who stick to lifestyle recommendations,” he concludes.
I’d like to add that it’s never too late to do a lifestyle reboot. Not only will adopting healthier daily habits keep your future brain healthier, but it will enhance your quality of life right now.