Mild cognitive impairment, early stage dementia, early onset Alzheimer's - What's the difference?

Posted on December 08, 2010 by Michael Corley

As I was attempting to write this blog about early onset dementia/Alzheimer’s, I was reviewing notes from discussions with leaders in the dementia field in the Southwest Florida region, and I started to get confused about the  terminology.

Some of my earlier discussions were with:

Gloria Smith, CEO of the Alzheimer’s Association – Florida Gulf Coast Chapter

Kathleen Houseweart, Manager of Geriatric Services and Coordinator  of the Memory Disorder Clinic at Sarasota Memorial Health System

Aryn Bush, PhD, Instructor of Cognitive Psychology from USF Polytech, who developed the BASE (Beginning Alzheimer’s Support and Education program).

Mild Cognitive Impairment, Early Stage Dementia, and Early Onset Dementia may sound similar, but there are distinct differences that are important as we study the dementia continuum of care. I would like to share my understanding of each of these, and I welcome any clarification.

Mild Cognitive Impairment (“MCI”): Involves problems with memory, language, thinking and judgment beyond what is expected at a given age. People with MCI recognize that their memory is “slipping” and friends and family may notice some changes. MCI is not usually a severe enough condition to impact an individual’s ability to function on a daily basis. For some people, MCI will progress into a dementia, however, this is not always the case.

Early stage dementia or early stage Alzheimer’s: This is defined as it sounds. It's the beginning stages of the disorder.  These individuals meet the criteria of having been diagnosed with dementia, and they are able to recognize that they are having some difficulties.  In most cases, they are able to continue doing simple daily routines.

Early onset dementia or Alzheimer’s: Is an individual who is diagnosed with having or having had dementia or Alzheimer’s before the age of 65. This designation is all about the individual’s age at the time it was suspected they had dementia.  In other words, if someone is diagnosed (or even suspected of) having dementia at 64 years old, he/she will forever be diagnosed with early onset dementia.

These distinctions are important because the tools and resources to support these individuals and caregivers vary depending on the situation.  This is one more challenge we (TPF) are having with this initiative.  I welcome any thoughts and comments.  Next week, I will discuss these conditions in more detail and their respective challenges.



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