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how fast does mild cognitive impairment progress

How Fast Do the Levels of Cognitive Impairment Progress?

If you or your loved one is experiencing signs of mild cognitive decline, you need to familiarize yourself with the levels of cognitive impairment and how fast they can progress.

Everyone’s cognitive abilities may decline as we age, an all too common aspect of growing older that can affect our memory, reasoning, and problem-solving skills.

If someone you know is experiencing these changes, read on to find out about levels of cognitive impairment.

Together we’ll explore the four levels of progression, as well as risk factors, various treatment options, and the importance of early detection and intervention.

Introduction to cognitive impairment

Cognitive impairment is any condition affecting the brain’s ability to think, reason, remember, or process information. It can show in individuals of any age, although it’s decidedly more common among older adults.

Cognitive impairment can range from mild to severe, depending on the extent of the cognitive decline and its impact on daily life activities.

Some degree of cognitive decline is a normal part of the aging process. But significant cognitive impairment can affect a person’s independence and quality of life.

It’s crucial to recognize the early signs of cognitive impairment in the ones you love, as early detection and intervention might help slow the condition’s progression and improve their lives.

Understanding the four levels of cognitive impairment

To better understand the progression of cognitive impairment, it’s helpful to know the four levels:

  1. No cognitive impairment (NCI)
  2. Subjective Cognitive Impairment (SCI)
  3. Mild cognitive impairment (MCI)
  4. Severe cognitive impairment or dementia

Each of these levels is characterized by a different range of cognitive abilities and symptoms.

Four levels of cognitive impairment: From normal aging to dementia

No cognitive impairment

Individuals at this level show no decline in cognition or ability to perform complex tasks that rely on their cognitive skills.

The NCI stage characterizes normal aging individuals and some with a cognitively impairing disorder that, thankfully, is not severe enough to produce any change in their abilities. The average duration of this level is 30 years.

Subjective cognitive impairment

At this level, there is a perceived decline in the person’s cognitive or functional abilities—subjective to interpretation. This level does not typically keep them from performing any of their activities, whether common or complex tasks.

Individuals are often aware that there is a decline in some abilities but are able to compensate for it and still perform successfully.

The SCI level may comprise normal aging individuals and those experiencing progressive impairment due to a worsening cognitive disorder. For someone who has Alzheimer’s disease, the SCI stage can last up to 15 years.

Mild cognitive impairment

The MCI level involves a decline in cognitive abilities such as language, memory, reasoning, perception, or judgment that is not due to the normal aging process.

Individuals at the MCI level of severity can independently drive, cook, shop, pay bills, manage finances, do household chores, and other previously learned skills that do not place significant cognitive demands on them like learning new information.

The MCI stage goes beyond what you would typically see in normal aging individuals and is caused by at least one cognitive disorder.

Symptoms of MCI can remain stable for several years or may progress to Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia.

People who are aged 65 or older with mild cognitive impairment can develop dementia in as little as one year from diagnosis (7.5%, rising to 20% in the third year).


Dementia is the final level of severity after the MCI stage, seen in most cognitively impairing disorders.

The dementia stage shows a decline in the ability to perform wider activities of daily living, which include well-learned skills such as:

  • Shopping for groceries
  • Cooking
  • Driving to familiar locations
  • Doing housework
  • Paying bills
  • Completing home repairs
  • Taking part in hobbies or familiar activities

This stage eventually progresses to affect even more basic activities of daily living.

Dementia often impairs actions like dressing, bathing, and other standard bathroom activities. It will often progress to affect their walking, speech, swallowing, and control of the trunk, neck, and face.

The dementia stage is not considered part of the normal aging process and is caused by one or more cognitive disorders.

For those with Alzheimer’s Disease, the dementia stage lasts, on average, 8-10 years.

Risk factors influencing the progression of cognitive impairment

Several factors can influence the progression of cognitive impairment. It’s not always entirely preventable but there are steps to take to keep cognitive abilities sharp.


Older adults tend to be at a higher risk of developing cognitive impairment. Cognitive decline can begin after 50 but commonly appears around age 70. 


A family history of dementia doesn’t guarantee that someone will develop cognitive impairment and dementia. But the presence of a specific gene can be tested for if there is a long line of family members with the disease.


Lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise, and cognitive stimulation play a crucial role in maintaining cognitive health and can affect the progression of cognitive impairment.

A healthy lifestyle (a balanced diet, regular physical activity, and engaging in mentally stimulating activities) can help protect against cognitive decline and slow the progression of cognitive impairment.

Foods including berries, green leafy vegetables, nuts, good fats found in fish, and tea or coffee are just some of the items that can help reduce the risk of cognitive impairment.

Overall health

Lastly, overall health plays a significant role in cognitive function.

Chronic health conditions (e.g., diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease) tend to be associated with an increased risk of cognitive impairment and its progression.

Proper management of these conditions and maintaining overall health can help slow the progression of cognitive impairment.

How fast does the progression of cognitive impairment happen?

The speed at which cognitive impairment progresses varies greatly between individuals and depends on various factors like the ones mentioned previously.

People may experience a slow and gradual decline in cognitive abilities, while others may experience a more rapid progression.

In general, the progression of cognitive impairment is faster in the later stages (moderate and severe) compared to the earlier stages (no impairment and mild).

According to a 2013 study, “progression from MCI to any form of dementia [might] occur at a rate 3 to 5 times higher” compared to someone with normal cognition.

However, early detection and intervention can significantly impact the rate of progression and help maintain cognitive abilities for a longer period.

Treatment options for slowing levels of cognitive impairment

While there is currently no cure for cognitive impairment (or dementia as it develops), various treatment options can help slow its progression and manage symptoms. These treatment options include the following.


Certain medications can help manage the symptoms of cognitive impairment and slow its progression, particularly in the early stages.

These medications may include cholinesterase inhibitors, which help improve memory and cognitive function in individuals with mild to moderate cognitive impairment.

There’s also memantine, which helps regulate the activity of a brain chemical called glutamate and may be used in more advanced stages of cognitive impairment.

Cognitive stimulation

Engaging in activities that stimulate the mind may help maintain cognitive abilities and slow the progression of cognitive impairment.

Activities such as reading, solving puzzles, playing sudoku or chess, attending classes, or participating in social events can keep the brain active and promote cognitive health.

Physical activity

Regular physical exercise has been shown to improve cognitive function and slow cognitive decline.

It’s believed that exercise helps increase blood flow to the brain, promoting the growth of new brain cells and enhancing cognitive function.

Engaging in activities such as walking, swimming, or yoga can help improve cognitive health and slow the progression of cognitive impairment. Many gyms and community centers offer discounts for seniors.

Additionally, if you’ve discussed a senior living community with your loved one, such as The Kensington Sierra Madre, they’ll have access to private training, physical therapy, and fitness centers.


A balanced diet rich in whole grains, as well as fruits, veggies, and healthy fats, can help support cognitive health and slow the progression of cognitive impairment. Avoiding alcohol and smoking also helps to maintain cognitive health and prevent other conditions from developing.

Treatment options for cognitive impairment should always be discussed with a healthcare professional. They can assess the individual’s unique needs and recommend the best treatment approach. If your loved one is cognitively healthy enough, they should be involved in the discussion and decision-making.

The importance of early detection and intervention

Early detection and intervention are essential in managing the progression of cognitive impairment.

Detecting cognitive impairment in its early stages allows for earlier treatment and management of symptoms, which can significantly impact the rate of progression and improve the individual’s quality of life.

Early detection of cognitive impairment can be challenging, as individuals may not recognize or report their symptoms, and their loved ones may not notice subtle changes in their cognitive abilities.

Regular cognitive assessments and screening for cognitive impairment can help detect early signs of decline and allow for early intervention.

Managing the progression of cognitive impairment

Managing the progression of cognitive impairment involves a combination of lifestyle modifications, medication, and supportive care.

Caregivers and family members can play a crucial role in managing the progression of cognitive impairment by providing emotional and practical support and ensuring the individual’s safety and well-being.

Supportive care for individuals with cognitive impairment may include:

  • Memory aids: These can include calendars, to-do lists, and reminders to help the individual remember important tasks and appointments.
  • Safety modifications: Modifying the home environment to prevent falls and ensure safety, such as installing grab bars or removing tripping hazards.
  • Social engagement: Encouraging social engagement and participation in activities can help improve cognitive function and promote overall well-being.

Conclusion: Coping with different cognitive impairment

Cognitive impairment is a complex condition that can significantly impact an individual’s quality of life. Understanding the four levels of cognitive impairment and their progression can help individuals and their loved ones better cope with the condition.

At The Kensington Sierra Madre, we specialize in memory care for individuals with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Our Promise is to love and care for your loved one as we do our own.

If you’re concerned about your loved one’s cognitive abilities or have noticed symptoms of cognitive impairment, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us to learn more about our memory care community.

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