What Is A Cognitive Disorder And How Is It Treated?

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated February 23, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Cognitive disorders (CDs) are a category of mental health conditions that affect a person’s mental abilities, such as problem-solving, memory, learning, and perception. They may also be referred to as neurocognitive disorders. While gradual mental decline can be a normal part of aging, once it progresses to the point that you or your loved ones notice that something may be wrong, it could be a mild cognitive impairment (MCI). Read on to learn more about MCIs and what treatments may be available.

Have you recently been diagnosed with a cognitive disorder?

When does normal aging become mild cognitive impairment?

While some gradual cognitive deficits are a normal part of aging, these typically shouldn’t significantly impact your overall daily functioning. If you notice that you’re experiencing difficulty with recognition, long-term memory, or decreased intelligence, you may want to speak with your healthcare provider for a mental workup to evaluate your cognitive functioning and see if an MCI might be affecting you. 

MCIs are not the same as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, which are more severe forms of cognitive impairment. However, some estimates suggest that one to two people in ten who experience an MCI will eventually develop one of these more serious conditions. That said, the MCIs others experience may never worsen, or may even improve somewhat over time.

Some serious cognitive disorders that may result from an MCI that escalates include:

  • Dementia, the term used to describe a decline in mental function that is significant enough to interfere with a person’s daily living and ability to care for themselves
  • Amnesia, or amnestic syndrome, which refers to the loss of memories or the inability to retain new memories
  • Delirium, which generally refers to a significant change in mental ability, symptoms of which often include confused thinking and a lack of awareness of surroundings
  • Alzheimer’s disease, a progressive disease that involves the degeneration of the parts of the brain controlling thought, memory, and language, eventually interfering with the ability to complete even simple tasks

How are cognitive impairments diagnosed?

Before diagnosing an MCI, a healthcare professional will typically begin by conducting a thorough review of an individual’s medical history to help eliminate treatable causes for the cognitive impairment. You and possibly your close friends or family may be asked about changes in your ability to function during daily activities. Your healthcare provider may also order blood tests, brain scans, and various screenings to help evaluate your current level of cognitive functioning and any potential underlying causes. 

In some cases, an MCI is caused by another treatable disease or condition such as low blood sugar, high blood pressure, dehydration, or other medical issues. Its effects can often be mitigated or reversed in these cases. If not, an MCI is generally considered an early indicator of more significant CDs. That’s why older adults are generally encouraged to see their doctor every 6–12 months for checkups and to track changes in memory/cognitive skills.

“Identifying pending cognitive impairment at an early stage has become an increasingly important challenge to physicians. Decades ago, it was satisfactory to distinguish dementia from typical cognitive aging, but in recent years, the desire to make a more fine-grained decision on incipient disease has become apparent”, say the authors of a paper about evaluating MCI subtypes.

Potential signs and symptoms of mild cognitive impairment

According to the Cleveland Clinic, some of the typical symptoms of a mild cognitive impairment can include the following. Note that while these can all be normal parts of aging, they may be a sign of an MCI when they begin to significantly interfere with daily functioning.

  • Memory loss, which may include frequently misplacing items, repeating the same questions or stories, and forgetting names of close friends and family or important appointments, events, and conversations
  • Complex decision-making, which can manifest as having difficulty with complex but routine tasks like taking medication, paying bills, or driving
  • Language problems, such as difficulty finding the right word or trouble understanding verbal or written information
  • Reasoning and judgment, meaning that it may become more challenging to make plans and decisions and execute sound judgment
  • Attention, meaning you may notice that you need more time to focus and find yourself frequently distracted, sometimes in the middle of an activity

Can cognitive impairments be prevented?


The exact cause of cognitive disorders isn’t known. However, many healthcare professionals recommend that older adults aim to keep their minds limber along with their bodies in an effort to help prevent them from developing. This might include establishing a daily routine, learning a new skill, getting involved in activities that stimulate the mind and body, spending time with friends and family, reducing stress, sleeping and eating well, exercising, moderating alcohol use, and controlling high blood pressure, among other preventative measures.

Treatment for cognitive impairments 

Some studies suggest that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may be a feasible treatment for the anxiety often associated with dementia. Because psychotherapy helps stimulate the brain, it may also be another way to keep your mind active and help preserve memory. Otherwise, aside from the potential helpfulness of the preventative measures listed above, there are no approved medications or standard treatments for MCIs at this time.

As mentioned previously, there may also be other medical causes for cognitive issues. If any are revealed through testing and evaluation, your healthcare provider should arrange for the appropriate treatment. For example, research shows that hypertension, smoking, and diabetes can contribute to cognitive decline, all of which may be responsive to certain treatments and/or lifestyle changes. Certain medications can also influence mental functions, so it can be helpful to speak to your doctor about your pharmaceutical regimen to determine if you may be experiencing any adverse reactions or side effects.

Tips for caring for someone with an MCI

It can be frightening when cognitive decline begins to affect a loved one. There are few tips to keep in mind for those who spend time with and/or provide care for someone who has been diagnosed with a mild cognitive impairment. First, you might endeavor to learn everything you can about their condition, how it works, and what you can expect. If it’s the type of MCI that could possibly escalate into a more serious cognitive condition, you may need to prepare for this. 

Building a support network, reviewing legal documents, making safety adjustments to their home, and devising a care plan can all be important steps should their condition begin to progress. Encouraging them to pursue healthy habits like those listed previously in this article could potentially also help slow the progression of the impairment. Finally, seeking therapy for yourself as a way to preserve your own mental health may be helpful too. Details on different therapy formats are written below.

How therapy may help with cognitive disorders

Getty/MoMo Productions
Have you recently been diagnosed with a cognitive disorder?

Again, experiencing some level of gradual cognitive decline is a typical part of aging. However, certain practices and lifestyle changes may help mitigate these effects or potentially prevent them from worsening into an MCI or other condition. Therapy is one preventative measure to consider. Since high or chronic stress levels may contribute to cognitive decline, engaging in therapeutic treatment to reduce these can be helpful, for instance. Therapy can also be thought of as a way to engage the mind, which is another recommended preventative measure.

Virtual therapy platforms have become an increasingly popular choice for those who want to seek therapy, with many individuals citing convenience, affordability, and scheduling flexibility as its key advantages. It may also be a convenient choice for older adults who can no longer drive themselves to and from appointments, or who live in rural areas where they cannot get adequate mental health care. If you’re interested in trying online therapy, a platform like BetterHelp may be worth considering. With a service like this, you can fill out a brief questionnaire about your needs and preferences and get matched with a licensed therapist accordingly. You can then meet with them via phone, video call, and/or online chat.

A 2021 study measured the effectiveness of internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) via Zoom technology for older adults with mild cognitive impairment. Though the study size was small, 67% of participants said the virtual therapy was both easy to use and effective. Participants also said the convenience of being at home was a “tremendous plus”, and that they enjoyed interacting with others experiencing similar issues in the group setting. Another study of online CBT for older adults (without cognitive impairment) showed a significant improvement in psychological distress, high participation levels and satisfaction, and sustained outcomes.


A mild cognitive impairment may begin to impact a person’s daily functioning. If you or a loved one has begun experiencing any of the key symptoms of an MCI, speaking with a doctor is typically the recommended next step.
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