Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is an illness that impacts 20 percent of seniors worldwide but is difficult to detect—so much so that only recently was it clinically defined. Frequently dismissed as the sort of memory loss that impacts many people aged 65 and above, MCI leads to Alzheimer's disease 30 to 50 percent of the time a patient is diagnosed with the disorder.

There are actually two types of MCI: amnestic (which manifests itself as memory problems) and non-amnestic (which results in issues with attention, concentration, decision-making, planning, etc.). A patient could also experience deficits in several areas, known as multi-domain MCI, or just one, known as single-domain MCI. 

Generally speaking, this condition straddles the gap between the cognitive decline that might be experienced during normal aging and that which might signal the onset of Alzheimer's. MCI can be triggered by a genetic condition or diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and depression. Lifestyle choices like smoking or lack of exercise can also play a role.

Detecting MCI
Doctors typically diagnose MCI based on their examination of a patient and a number of tests, including brain imaging, but recent tests have attempted to simplify the process. While there is no treatment for this condition, diagnosis is critical so that legal and financial decisions can be made on the senior's behalf.

Research has shown signs that technology can serve as a solution to the problem of MCI detection. Technology's role in health care is nothing new and will continue to increase as the U.S. population continues to age. By 2030, every Baby Boomer will be 65 and over, meaning that 21 percent of the U.S. population will be in that age range, up from 15 percent today. Five years later, the U.S. Census Bureau projects that there will be more older Americans (78 million) than those under the age of 18 (76.7 million).

Coupled with that is an expected shortfall in health care professionals—nurses in particular. While the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the number of registered nurses will increase from 2.9 million in 2016 to 3.4 million in 2026, it is expected that there will be a need for over 200,000 more. 

As a result, technology, already an increasing part of everyday operations at health care facilities, can provide essential labor- and time-saving devices. Many skilled nursing facilities and other long-term care centers already use robotics, telehealth, and electronic medical records to enhance transitional care. Technology can also be used as a relaxation outlet, for entertainment purposes, and as a way to maintain social interactions with residents and loved ones on the outside. But as technology becomes more advanced, it will continue to support the health care industry in diagnosing MCI.

Certain smartphone apps can expose patients to visual and auditory stimuli—i.e., flashes of light or sound blips—to measure the speed of their responses. The results of these simple tests illustrate the link between visual and auditory responses and how they support memory loss while also showing when there may be cognitive impairment issues.

Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are also proving to be valuable tools in MCI detection, although their intervention is still in its early stages. Paper-and-pencil tests have been effective up to this point, but digital technology is helping to overcome the shortage of these tests while also being a low-cost, safe alternative. When combined with traditional therapies, VR and AR support cognitive evaluation while helping health care professionals discover new, effective ways to intervene in MCI diagnosis.

Joel LandauSkilled nursing facilities and nursing homes can also rely on eye-tracking technology to help identify mild cognitive impairment in residents. Eye movement impairments are commonly a marker for future Alzheimer's diagnoses and often show up before there are any signs of cognitive decline. Outdated cognitive assessments are typically unable to catch these impairments, so having seniors engage in activities where their eye movements can be monitored allows professionals to see patterns that could predict which patients are at higher risk of developing MCI.

While the continued applications of technology and its relation to MCI are promising, there are still challenges today in discerning MCI-related symptoms in patients. Experts advise getting an assessment, either from a professional or a trusted friend, if someone is experiencing those symptoms (e.g., increased forgetfulness, losing one's train of thought, or struggling to find one's way about a familiar place, etc.). While nothing is foolproof as far as preventing MCI, those same experts advise that self-care reduces one's chances of falling prey to the condition.

Joel Landau is the founder and chairman of The Allure Group, a network of six New York City-based nursing homes.