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What Are Common Causes of MCI and How Does It Differ from Typical Aging?

Kim McCullough, PhD, CCC-SLP, Anne Hunter Cox

May 1, 2023



What are common causes of MCI and how does it differ from typical aging?


There are many causes of MCI, including neurodegenerative, vascular, metabolic, psychiatric, and traumatic etiologies. The most common cause of MCI is Alzheimer’s disease (AD). The most common symptom of MCI is episodic memory (EM) impairment. This is unsurprising given that AD is the most common cause and EM impairment is the signature AD characteristic. That being said, clinicians should be aware that AD can present in atypical ways in which memory impairment is not an early symptom. The challenge to clinicians is differentiating cognitive changes associated with pathology versus those that occur with typically aging adults. Older adults who experience changes in cognition typically have slower processing speeds, do not divide attention as efficiently as they once did, and have difficulty ordering two or more events. These adults, however, do not have an episodic memory deficit. These changes differentiate individuals with AD-related MCI from healthy older adults (Bayles et al., 2020; Sabbagh et al., 2010).

The four neurobehavioral criteria that define MCI (American Psychiatric Association, 2013) are:

  1. Concern regarding a change in cognition, compared with prior level, through self-report or the report of an informant or clinician.
  2. Impairment in one or more cognitive domains that is lower than expected for the patient’s age and education.
  3. Preservation of independence in functional abilities though the individual may be less efficient, prone to making errors, and need more time for task completion.
  4. Not demented: The cognitive and behavioral changes are insufficient to significantly interfere with social or occupational functioning.

Although most individuals experience slight cognitive changes as they age, those with MCI often experience cognitive changes that are of concern to the individual and/or family, and have objectively confirmed impairment in one or more cognitive domains (e.g., language or spatial/visual perception). McKhann (2011) offered that “[t]here are no exact transition points that define when an individual has progressed from the MCI phase to the dementia phase. It is a question of clinical judgment.” Individuals with MCI do not have dementia and can independently perform activities of daily living (ADLs). When ADLs are impaired, a “major neurocognitive disorder” may be considered (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

This ATE is an excerpt from the course, 20Q: Mild Cognitive Impairment - The SLP’s Role in Service Delivery, authored by Kim McCullough, PhD, CCC-SLP and Anne Hunter Cox.

kim mccullough

Kim McCullough, PhD, CCC-SLP

Kim McCullough PhD, CCC-SLP is a Professor and Graduate Program Director at Appalachian State University. She is a certified speech-language pathologist with clinical expertise in providing services to individuals with neurogenic communication disorders. Her teaching, clinical activities and research focus on interprofessional practice & education, aging, mild cognitive impairment, dementia, and interventions for sustaining brain function.

anne hunter cox

Anne Hunter Cox

Anne Hunter Cox is a graduate student at Appalachian State University working towards her master's degree in Speech-Language Pathology. She earned her Bachelor of Science degree from Clemson University where she majored in Health Science with an emphasis on health promotion and behavior. With this skill set, Anne Hunter works alongside Kim McCullough, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, at Appalachian State University to provide cognitive wellness programs for adults with memory concerns in their community.

Related Courses

20Q: Mild Cognitive Impairment - The SLP’s Role in Service Delivery
Presented by Kim McCullough, PhD, CCC-SLP, Anne Hunter Cox


Kim McCullough, PhD, CCC-SLPAnne Hunter Cox
Course: #10527Level: Intermediate1 Hour
  'Very interesting'   Read Reviews
Increasingly, SLPs are serving individuals with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI). MCI, cognitive reserve, and modifiable risk factors that can reduce the risk of dementia are defined and described in this course. An overview of cognitive/communicative deficits associated with MCI, as well as assessment and management considerations, is also provided.

Textbook: Cognitive Communication Disorders of MCI and Dementia - Definition, Assessment, and Clinical Management
Presented by Kim McCullough, PhD, CCC-SLP, Kathryn A. Bayles, PhD, ASHA Fellow, Cheryl Tomoeda, MS, CCC-SLP


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Based on the textbook Cognitive Communication Disorders of MCI and Dementia: Definition, Assessment, and Clinical Management, this course provides the knowledge to diagnose and treat individuals with cognitive-communicative disorders associated with aging, mild cognitive impairment (MCI), and dementia-producing diseases, our fastest growing clinical population.

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This course will focus on the treatment of MCI using current best practices. Intervention structure and content, as well as examples of strategies and activities for clinical implementation will be reviewed.

20Q: Dementia - Evidence-Based Strategies for Quality of Life Interventions
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20Q: Setting Meaningful Goals with Your Clients - How Counseling Techniques Can Help
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This course discusses the philosophy behind meeting meaningful needs in therapy, along with tools and counseling techniques that help with understanding a client’s needs. Specific techniques such as ethnographic counseling, motivational interviewing, and tools for verbally impaired clients are described, and examples within therapy interactions are provided.

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