If wavering attention and lapses in memory persistently interrupt your day, you could be experiencing symptoms of a mild neurocognitive disorder.
It’s natural to forget where you set your keys down once in a while. Maybe you don’t retain information as well as you used to or you feel distracted every now and then.
But if these distractions and memory lapses are unusual and they keep happening, it might be more than absentmindedness.
These modest changes in your cognitive function may be what’s known as mild neurocognitive disorder, a mental decline that’s noticeable but may not yet significantly impact your daily function.
Mild neurocognitive disorder is included in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5) as a formal diagnosis under neurocognitive disorders.
In sum, it refers to a modest yet recognizable cognitive decline in one or more areas.
Cognitive refers to mental processes that allow you to acquire knowledge and understand your experiences. Remembering something, learning a new word, and making a decision are all examples of cognitive function.
Mild neurocognitive disorder may occur from unspecified causes, or it could manifest as a symptom of:
- onset of Alzheimer’s disease
- frontotemporal lobar degeneration
- Huntington’s disease
- Parkinson’s disease
- prion disease
- substance or medication use
- HIV infection
- vascular disease
- traumatic brain injury
- Lewy body dementia
A physician, psychiatrist, or other mental health professionals can diagnose the condition. They’ll be looking for the following criteria in order to reach a diagnosis:
A. Evidence of decline or mild impairment in:
- focus and attention
- ability to make decisions and plan events
- learning and memory
- perception and movement
- ability to interact with others
This evidence can come from cognitive and medical tests or from information people close to you have gathered.
B. The decline may represent a greater effort in completing some tasks but wouldn’t interfere with the ability of the person to do them independently. In other words, you’re still capable of functioning in the world but it may take you a bit longer or specific accommodations to perform everyday tasks.
C. Symptoms aren’t related to an episode of delirium.
D. There are no other possible explanations for the symptoms, like another mental health diagnosis.
Mild neurocognitive disorder may present with or without changes in behavior. For example, it could present with or without signs of apathy, agitation, or mood changes.
Symptoms may also present at any age and aren’t related to aging.
Symptoms of mild neurocognitive disorder may differ depending on the underlying cause. Not everyone will experience the same symptoms or with the same intensity.
Mild neurocognitive disorder from a traumatic brain injury, for example, might present differently than as a result of Alzheimer’s disease.
Common signs of mild neurocognitive disorder may include:
- difficulty recalling, retaining, or learning new information
- inability to make sound judgments
- behavior changes
- difficulty concentrating
- memory loss
- changes in visual perception
- conversation or language challenges
Forgetfulness doesn’t always mean memory loss. It can be momentary, and it can be as simple as walking into a room and not remembering what you went in there for.
Difficulty recalling, retaining, or learning new information
You may find that you don’t hang on to information as well as you used to. This might mean reading an article and being unable to recall details a few minutes later, for example.
Inability to make sound judgments
Your judgment may have lapses if you have mild neurocognitive disorder. This doesn’t mean you can’t make decisions, but it may mean you may not always consider all alternatives.
For example, you might buy into a scam online or decide to drive after too many drinks.
Changes in behavior can present in many ways. You might find you’re suddenly inclined toward impulsive behavior. Maybe your friends and family notice you’ve become withdrawn or more irritable.
These changes don’t have to be extreme to be a sign of mild neurocognitive disorder.
Confusion occurs when you can’t think clearly, or things don’t make sense to you for a while.
Planning for a project, for example, might feel like a challenge if the steps don’t make sense to you or you can’t anticipate the end result.
Mild neurocognitive disorder may cause anxiety as you become aware your cognitive function is declining.
You may be worried it’s a symptom of a more serious condition, and you might wonder if you’ll need daily assistance in the future.
It’s natural to feel this way when you first become aware of these changes.
You may experience difficulty focusing on large or small tasks, following conversations, or attending lengthy events.
More substantial than forgetfulness, short-term memory loss in mild neurocognitive disorder can mean forgetting names, places, or important dates.
You might find you don’t remember appointments or don’t recall bumping into an old friend while you were running errands.
Changes in visual perception
Blurred vision, diminished vision, or any changes to your normal sight can be better explained by a health professional.
Conversation or language challenges
Mild neurocognitive disorder can impact the areas of the brain related to communication. You may forget words mid-sentence, or find it challenging to think of how to express what you’re thinking or feeling.
The main difference between major and mild neurocognitive disorders is the intensity and severity of the symptoms and how much they interfere with your independence.
When you live with major neurocognitive disorder, you often need help during the day, particularly with complex tasks like paying bills or managing medications. You may also have a hard time remembering important things, like people’s names or even who they are.
What’s the difference between mild neurocognitive disorder and dementia?
Mild neurocognitive disorder isn’t dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
It’s the “middle ground” where signs of cognitive decline are visible but haven’t yet progressed into an impairing condition.
There can be many causes of mild neurocognitive disorder, and it may never progress beyond modest decline of cognitive functions.
Dementia is an older term for major neurocognitive disorder. It’s used to describe the point where cognitive decline prevents you from performing many activities on your own.
Alzheimer’s disease is a specific form of major neurocognitive disorder, characterized by changes in the brain that worsen over time and impact your cognitive functions.
There are currently no medications approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for treatment of mild neurocognitive disorder.
Certain lifestyle choices, however, have been shown in meta-analysis to be a promising way of slowing down the signs of cognitive decline.
Mild neurocognitive disorder can affect anyone, of any age. It’s often noticed as mild changes in memory, behavior, and decision-making among other cognitive functions.
Mild neurocognitive disorder doesn’t stop you from living an independent life, but it may cause you to invest more effort in time doing everyday activities that felt easier before.
While there’s no medication to treat mild neurocognitive disorder, living an active lifestyle may help prevent further decline.