Memory Care

Mild Cognitive Impairment vs. Dementia vs. Alzheimer’s

We’ve all experienced some forgetfulness as we age – whether misplacing our glasses or forgetting the name of a neighbor. Yet, forgetfulness isn’t necessarily an indication of dementia. 

To start, memory loss comes in diverse forms. Sometimes memory impairment may be mild enough that it doesn’t impact our daily lives. In more serious cases, we may need extra support to carry out our day-to-day tasks and stay safe. 

Our experts at Varenita of Westlake have put together this guide on the differences between Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease. Our hope is that you’ll get a good grasp on symptoms and stages, so you can better support your loved one as they live with memory loss. 

Understanding Cognitive Health

40% of adults will experience some form of memory loss by the age of 65. That’s why cognitive health is so essential for older adults. 

Cognitive health involves the ability to think clearly, learn new things, have good judgment, and remember. As you can imagine, cognitive health plays a key role in handling daily tasks such as cooking a meal, paying bills, or attending appointments. 

It’s vital for adults to keep up cognitive health to maintain their quality of life and independence. Some signs that you or your loved one may be struggling with memory loss include: 

  • Frequently forgetting things, appointments, or events
  • Losing train of thought or the flow of conversation
  • Struggling to navigate to/from familiar places
  • Showing poor decision-making or judgment 

In particular, if your family and friends notice these signs, it may be time to see a doctor about your symptoms.

Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI)

Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) is characterized by often losing or forgetting things. Those with MCI may also become easily distracted, repeat questions, or struggle to find the right words. 

An estimated 12-18% of adults over 60 experience MCI. It’s important to note that MCI doesn’t refer to age-related forgetfulness. People living with MCI experience more than usual cognitive decline for their age.  

Adults with MCI experience a minor decline in memory or reasoning skills. For this reason, they typically can remain independent and can handle everyday tasks without help. 

MCI Symptoms and Signs

MCI refers to a set of symptoms rather than a specific disease. Symptoms tend to be mild, including:

  • Frequently losing or forgetting things
  • Missing events/appointments
  • Becoming easily distracted and/or unable to follow conversation
  • Often repeating questions 
  • Struggling to find the right words 
  • Difficulty following instructions
  • Trouble getting around familiar places
  • Reduced problem-solving skills 
  • Inability to accurately judge time, distance or depth
  • Showing poor judgment

Most adults with MCI continue to perform daily tasks with little to no trouble. However, some may need some assistance with areas such as paying bills or picking up medications.

How MCI Is Diagnosed

There’s no single test to diagnose MCI. Instead, a physician will look at your medical history and check for underlying conditions. 

Sometimes MCI is caused by a stroke, traumatic brain injury, medication side effects,  or depression. In these cases, MCI can be treated. 

Otherwise, your physician will perform mental function tests and neurological exams to diagnose MCI. It’s common to ask about current abilities with daily tasks, such as cooking, taking medications, paying bills, using the phone, etc.  

Potential Outcomes of MCI

MCI symptoms are mild, but they should be taken seriously as they’re a risk factor for dementia. 

In fact, 10-15% of those who experience MCI will develop dementia within a year. If MCI advances to dementia, it becomes a progressive condition that will worsen over time. 

That said, MCI doesn’t always progress to dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Older adults who don’t develop dementia usually are able to retain their independence as they age.


Dementia is an umbrella term for conditions that cause progressive memory loss. Generally speaking, dementia significantly declines the ability to remember, think, problem-solve, and use language. 

Though early symptoms have some overlap with MCI, dementia gets worse over time, leading to severe interference with daily life. 

The most common type of dementia today is Alzheimer’s disease. However, there are other types including vascular dementia, Lewy body dementia, frontotemporal dementia, mixed dementia, and more. 

Dementia Symptoms and Signs

Dementia symptoms are often disruptive to daily life. Significant memory decline may lead to concerns about safety. For example, someone with dementia may leave the stove on, not recognize family members, or get lost on nearby streets.  

As dementia conditions get worse, quality of life is also diminished. It may become difficult to eat, get dressed, use the bathroom, etc. In addition, you or a loved one may experience these common symptoms:

  • May not recognize friends and family 
  • Unable to remember recent events or hold conversations
  • Finds socializing difficult and may demonstrate odd behaviors
  • Tendency to wander or get lost
  • Difficulty with balance and coordination
  • Personality changes 
  • General confusion, agitation and/or aggression

Note that the symptoms of dementia will also depend on the type of condition. For example, individuals with frontotemporal dementia may show greater changes in personality in the early stages. 

How Dementia Is Diagnosed

Diagnosing dementia requires looking at the full picture of the individual’s medical history. A physician will require several tests to make an accurate diagnosis of dementia. 

First, they will rule out any underlying conditions through a physical exam and any specific lab tests. The physician may also ask about medical history, including current medications, family history, etc.  

What’s more, your physician may perform:

  • Neurological tests and evaluation
  • Brain scans (CT, MRI, or PET)
  • Lab tests (blood or cerebrospinal fluid tests)
  • Psychiatric evaluation
  • Genetic tests

Progression and Stages of Dementia

Dementia is a serious medical condition that typically progresses in three stages: early, middle, and late dementia:

  • Early-stage dementia (~2 years) involves mild issues with memory loss, problem-solving, and language. 
  • Middle-stage dementia (~2-4 years) is when symptoms start to interfere with daily life. Individuals may become easily confused/disoriented, stop recognizing family members, and struggle to hold a conversation. Some may even experience delusions or paranoia. 
  • Late-stage dementia (~1-2 years) requires full-time support for your loved one. Often individuals will need help with basic tasks such as eating, dressing, and toileting. They may also show severe behavior changes, language impairment, and loss of balance. At this stage, adults may experience apathy and heightened aggression as well.  

Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, accounting for 60-80% of cases. It’s a specific disease that results from a build-up of amyloid in the brain. Over time, these substances clump and interfere with normal brain function. 

As Alzheimer’s disease progresses, it makes thinking, memory, and language more difficult. Eventually, daily tasks become challenging and individuals require assistance to handle everyday needs and stay safe.

Alzheimer’s Symptoms and Signs

Alzheimer’s disease shares many of the same symptoms as general dementia. The most common signs to look for are:

  • Memory: forgetting recent events/conversations, repeating questions, missing appointments, getting lost in a familiar place, learning new information, etc. 
  • Thinking: getting easily confused/disoriented, becoming easily distracted, unable to follow conversations, difficulty organizing, etc. 
  • Language: trouble finding the right words, pausing frequently to think of the word, etc. 
  • Mood changes: becoming anxious, withdrawn, restless or aggressive, etc., experiencing delusions or hallucinations.

How Alzheimer’s Is Diagnosed

To diagnose Alzheimer’s disease, a physician will undergo the same tests as general dementia, including:

  • Medical history evaluation
  • Physical exam
  • Neurological tests and evaluation
  • Brain scans (CT, MRI, or PET)
  • Lab tests (blood or cerebrospinal fluid tests)
  • Psychiatric evaluation
  • Genetic tests

Progression and Stages of Alzheimer’s

Alzheimer’s disease typically follows the same three stages as general dementia: early, middle, and late. Most Alzheimer’s diagnoses occur in the middle stage when symptoms start to impact everyday tasks. At this stage, long-term care may be considered to ensure safety and well-being. 

Keep in mind that there’s no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, so eventually, it progresses to an end-of-life stage. In the final months, individuals will require 24/7 care. 

Comparing MCI, Dementia and Alzheimer’s

Mild memory declineSignificant memory decline, including leaving the stove on or forgetting the names of family members
Minor impact on involved daily tasks, such as driving or paying billsMajor impact on daily tasks, including eating, getting dressed, using the bathroom, etc. 
Some troubling following conversationsUnable to hold conversations and socialize; may also demonstrate odd behaviors
Some trouble getting around familiar placesTendency to wander or get lost
Little to no impact on balance and coordinationDifficulty with balance and coordination
No marked personality changesPersonality changes, including agitation and aggression

As you can see, MCI and dementia are associated with very different symptoms. They may also result in distinct outcomes for individuals. 

Just consider that 10-15% of individuals living with MCI will develop dementia within a year. That means it’s vital to pay attention to MCI symptoms and get diagnosed by an experienced physician. In this way, you can monitor if symptoms start to progress into dementia. 

Early detection of dementia is particularly essential as early treatment may help slow down memory decline. Plus, an early diagnosis will help your family plan ahead for care and get guidance on next steps.

Dementia vs. Alzheimer’s 

Dementia Alzheimer’s
General term for memory loss symptoms, which may be caused by several different diseasesSpecific type of dementia, caused by amyloid build-up in the brain
Symptoms differ according to the type of dementiaSymptoms typically overlap with general dementia but may vary
Treatment will depend on the affected area of the brain or underlying condition (stroke, infection, depression, etc.)Treatments and medications focus on stabilizing brain chemicals

While dementia and Alzheimer’s are similar in nature, they aren’t synonymous and treatments may differ depending on the exact type of dementia. 

Unfortunately, there’s no cure for dementia or Alzheimer’s, and most cases will lead to the end-of-life stage. That said, treatments can help slow down memory loss, while individualized care can boost quality of life. 

Living with MCI, Dementia, or Alzheimer’s

Getting a diagnosis of MCI, dementia or Alzheimer’s may feel overwhelming at first. Yet knowing what to expect can be empowering for you and your family. 

It can be especially difficult to adjust to living with dementia or Alzheimer’s. Some key concerns that you may have include:

  • Getting the level of support required, whether with daily tasks, chores, meals, etc. 
  • Ensuring safety, including from falls and wandering. 
  • Minimizing isolation through social opportunities and engaging activities.
  • Soothing agitation and restlessness.

The support of family, friends, and healthcare professionals is especially important for resolving these challenges and fostering quality of life as much as possible. 

As dementia progresses, your family may also require a more robust care solution for your loved one. Our senior living community in Westlake Village provides innovative, compassionate care, focused on each individual and their needs.

When to Consider a Move to a Community

Dementia symptoms are uniquely hard to predict, which makes it challenging for families to know when to consider senior living. Some key signs that it may be the right time to transition to a community include:

  • When your loved one’s safety is at risk. They may experience wandering, frequent falls, and hospital visits.
  • When your loved one’s behavior is changing. They may become more aggressive or withdrawn, or even have delusions.
  • When you’ve noticed a decline in your loved one’s physical well-being or hygiene. They may be struggling with daily tasks such as personal care, getting groceries, etc. 
  • When you’re worried about providing quality of life for your loved one. This is especially true if your loved one is alone at home with little to no social engagement during the day. 
  • When caregivers are feeling overwhelmed. As your loved one’s needs increase, you may feel the toll of providing care every day. 
  • After a diagnosis of dementia. This can help your family plan ahead and prevent symptoms from getting worse.

Often, moving a loved one to a community brings families peace of mind. There are numerous advantages to making this transition sooner rather than later. At Varenita of Westlake, for example, individuals benefit from:

  • Specialized memory care by dementia specialists
  • 24/7 health and safety monitoring
  • Engaging activities for the mind and body
  • Resort-style campus amenities and services
  • Opportunities for daily social engagement

Essentially, your loved one will be able to achieve their optimal quality of life surrounded by caring experts, memory-enhancing activities, and opportunities to stay engaged. In turn, this can slow down cognitive decline so your loved one thrives in the long term. 

Boost Your Cognitive Health With Varenita of Westlake

Know the signs of MCI, dementia, and Alzheimer’s with our guide above. While forgetfulness may be nothing to worry about, mild memory loss symptoms may later lead to dementia. 

That’s why you should seek professional advice if you or a loved one is showing any signs of cognitive impairment. Don’t hesitate to schedule a doctor’s appointment if you notice any symptoms. 

At Varenita of Westlake, we’re here for you and your family. We provide holistic memory care in Thousand Oaks tailored to each individual’s needs, goals, and interests. Our programs focus on elevating the quality of life for both the mind and the body. 

Contact Varenita of Westlake to learn how we maximize cognitive health, independence, and wellness for older adults.