Mild Cognitive Impairment Is Underdiagnosed, Research Suggests

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Oct. 25, 2023 – Most people who have mild thinking problems that could be early signs of dementia won’t get diagnosed during a primary care visit, potentially missing out on preventive treatments, according to researchers from the University of Southern California.

An estimated 99% of primary care doctors under-diagnose mild cognitive impairment, or MCI, according to an analysis of data for 200,000 primary care doctors by the USC researchers. The most common sign of MCI is forgetfulness, but other signs include mild changes in personality and trouble with efficiency or getting things done.

Between 10% and 15% of people living with MCI get dementia each year, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

“There’s really just a tiny fraction of physicians in a position to diagnose MCI who would find these cases early enough for maximum therapeutic potential,” researcher Soeren Mattke, MD, director of the Brain Health Observatory at USC, said in a statement. “For MCI caused by Alzheimer’s disease, the earlier you treat, the better your outcomes. This means even though the disease may be slowly progressing, every day counts.” 

The research will appear in the Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer's Disease, according to a news release from the university. 

Missing a diagnosis may result from someone not noticing their own decline, so they don’t bring it up during a visit. The signs may be so subtle that a doctor doesn’t notice it, or there may not be enough time during a visit to discuss or assess brain health, according to USC’s summary of the research.

A separate analysis published this past summer estimated that 7.4 million people in the U.S. with MCI remain undiagnosed, meaning just 8% of people with MCI know they may be at risk or further cognitive decline and can explore ways to prevent it.