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Cognitive impairment

5-minute read

Key facts

  • Cognitive impairment is not an illness, but it can signal other medical conditions.
  • Signs of cognitive impairment can include memory loss, mood swings and behavioural changes.
  • There are ways to treat and prevent cognitive impairment and its complications

What is cognitive impairment?

Cognitive impairment is when you have problems remembering things and solving problems. Cognitive impairment is not an illness. It can be caused by many conditions.  

You may struggle with:

  • remembering things
  • paying attention
  • speaking or understanding
  • recognising people, places or things
  • experiencing new places and situations — you may become overwhelmed

Cognitive impairment can come and go. This is often called delirium. Delirium can be a sign of serious medical problems.

Cognitive impairment can go from mild to severe.

What are the symptoms of cognitive impairment?

If someone you know has cognitive impairment, you may notice:

  • they sometimes feel confused, agitated or distressed
  • a change in their speech or behaviours
  • that they struggle to finish their daily tasks

What causes cognitive impairment?

There are many causes of cognitive impairment. Some causes of short-term or reversible cognitive impairment are:

Some causes of cognitive impairment that lasts forever are:

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

When should I see my doctor?

If you, or someone you know is showing signs of cognitive impairment, see your doctor. They can help find out the cause, rule out any serious conditions, and help arrange treatment.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

How is cognitive impairment diagnosed?

To work out if you have cognitive impairment, your doctor might ask questions to test your:

  • memory
  • concentration
  • understanding

They may also ask your family or carers questions. This is because they may have noticed changes in your behaviour over time. Doctors may also examine you, and do more tests to try to find the cause.

How is cognitive impairment treated?

Treatment will depend on what is causing your cognitive impairment. Exercise, healthy sleep and relaxation techniques may also help. You may find familiar objects comforting.

Not every older person has cognitive impairment. But cognitive impairment is more common in older people.

What are the complications of cognitive impairment?

People who have delirium and confusion have a higher chance of falls and injuries. It’s important to avoid dangerous activities like driving.

Can cognitive impairment be prevented?

Sometimes, cognitive impairment can be prevented.

A doctor can give advice on preventing cognitive impairment. They can also refer you for more help, such as:

For people with long-term cognitive impairment, there are ways to prevent delirium, confusion and other complications.

Resources and Support

You can learn more about cognitive impairment on the Caring for Cognitive Impairment website.

You can also call the healthdirect helpline on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria). A registered nurse is available to speak with 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: November 2022

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