Mild Cognitive Impairment: About a condition few people understand

Kanada Yazbek lives with a condition too few people know about let alone understand.

"It’s a hundred percent fatal," said Yazbek.  "Of course it’s scary."

She’s been diagnosed with a degenerative brain condition called mild cognitive impairment, or MCI. It is a condition that affects memory, thinking and language, but has not yet reached the level of severe brain cognition that becomes Alzheimer’s disease.

"For me, it’s kind of the start of a long journey," said Yazbek.

For those with MCI, the disruptions are much more than having short-term memory loss or episodes of what many call a ‘senior moment.’

"An important distinction, is that it’s not normal aging," said Lisa Groon of the Alzheimer’s Association. 

She explains that we all get forgetful as we get older.  Sometimes we forget where we put our car keys.  But Groon explains that people with an MCI forget what the keys are for.

Yazbek had a similar episode.  "Not long before my 40th birthday I was washing my hair," she remembered. Yazbek knew her hair was going to be clean when the process was over, but she had one big problem.  "My brain could not process the literal stops to wash my hair," she said.

"And those are real concerning things that people need to be coming to their primary care provider about," said Croon.

Yazbek was very familiar with the symptoms of memory loss.  She has a long history of Alzheimer’s within her family, her great-grandmother, grandmother and all of her grandmother’s siblings died from Alzheimer’s.  She knew the episode of not remembering how to wash her hair was something she needed to seek help with.  She ended up seeing neurologist Michael Rosenbloom at HealthPartners.

"Now, in the clinic, we can actually distinguish normal aging from mild cognitive impairment by administering a four-hour neuropsychological battery," explained Dr. Rosenbloom.  "This is a test of learning memory, language executive function, which has to do with multitasking, making decisions, and holding information in one’s head."

Yazbek went for a baseline test at Mayo Clinic in Rochester and then returned for a follow-up test a year later to measure any kind of deterioration.  She received her diagnosis of MCI near her 41st birthday.

"Mild cognitive impairment is extremely rare in the 40 and early 50-year-old population," explained Dr. Rosenbloom.  Much of the data on MCI is on patients 60 and above.  But researchers do know that the brain plaques and tangles that lead to Alzheimer’s disease start to form when people are in their 40s.

"But at that time, the brain is able to compensate," said Dr. Rosenbloom. "And so 20 to 30 years later, this patient may present to their doctor with the memory symptoms, but they’re still able to do instrumental activities of daily living.  That’s mild cognitive impairment."

Over time when the person can no longer carry out those daily instrumental activities is when the memory deterioration becomes Alzheimer’s dementia.

In some instances, MCI can be managed or reduced.  Lisa Groon of the Alzheimer’s Association says one example is with sleep disorders. "There have been times where a patient goes in and gets diagnosed with sleep apnea, receives the treatment necessary, and in months down the road they are thinking much clearer.  Their cognition is clearer," said Groon.

"There’s quite a bit of literature about the importance of lifestyle," said Dr. Rosenbloom.  Physical activity, diet, and socialization have been shown to make a difference.  "The risk of conversion from MCI to dementia is reduced," said Dr. Rosenbloom of the research.

Yazbek says knowing her diagnosis and condition is good because it allows her to plan her life.

"I want people to know that life can be OK," she said.  "Life is great."

But Yazbek knows there may be a time when she can no longer perform her job in business development for a mortgage firm along with teaching and training new real estate agents.  That’s why she has already started a commercial cleaning company as a side business for when the time comes to make the transition away from the pressures of the home finance industry.  She donates ten percent of the business’s proceeds to the Alzheimer’s Association.

Yazbek also carries a positive attitude.  She frequently tags her social media posts with #IHaveItNotItMe.

"I’m going to continue to be the person I want to be," said Yazbek.  "I’m just going to keep talking about it and not let it control my life."