Healthdirect Free Australian health advice you can count on.

Medical problem? Call 1800 022 222. If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately

healthdirect Australia is a free service where you can talk to a nurse or doctor who can help you know what to do.

Cross-section of brain

Cross-section of brain
beginning of content

Cognitive impairment

2-minute read

What is cognitive impairment?

Cognitive impairment is not an illness, but a description of someone's condition. It means they have trouble with things like memory or paying attention. They might have trouble speaking or understanding. And they might have difficulty recognising people, places or things, and might find new places or situations overwhelming.

Family and friends might notice that someone with cognitive impairment is confused, or agitated, or very moody. They might notice a change in their speech or behaviour, or that they have difficulty with their usual daily tasks.

Cognitive impairment can come and go. In this situation, it is often called delirium. Delirium can be a sign of serious medical problems.

Cognitive impairment can be mild, or severe, or anything in between.

What causes cognitive impairment?

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

Some causes of long-term or permanent cognitive impairment include:

How is cognitive impairment diagnosed?

To work out if someone has cognitive impairment, health professionals might ask questions to test memory, concentration and understanding. They may also ask questions of family or carers, who might have noticed changes in the person's behaviour over time. Doctors may ask questions, examine the person, and organise additional tests to try to find the cause.

How is cognitive impairment treated?

Treatment will depend on what is causing the cognitive impairment. If it is caused by an illness or condition, then that will need to be treated. Physical activity, healthy sleep and relaxation techniques can help. Familiar objects might also be comforting.

Not every older person will have cognitive impairment, but cognitive impairment is more common in older people.

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

Last reviewed: June 2020

Back To Top

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

Mild Cognitive Impairment | Dementia Australia

Memory loss has long been accepted as a normal part of ageing. Recently there has been increasing recognition that some people experience a level of memory loss greater than that usually experienced with ageing, but without other signs of dementia. This has been termed Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI). As MCI has only recently been defined, there is limited research on it and there is much that we do not yet understand.

Read more on Dementia Australia website

Dementia and chronic conditions series toolkit | Dementia Australia

There is increasing evidence that a number of different chronic conditions are associated with the development of cognitive impairment and dementia. The Dementia and Chronic Condi

Read more on Dementia Australia website

Homelessness | Dementia Australia

Homelessness and dementia There are significant numbers of people in the homeless population with cognitive impairment, including dementia.

Read more on Dementia Australia website

Cognitive screening and assessment | Dementia Australia

Cognitive screening and assessment Why is an assessment for cognitive impairment and dementia so important?  It is because an early diagnosis means early access to support, information and medication.   There is no single definitive test for diagnosing dementia. Assessment will account for behavioural, functional and psychosocial changes, together with radiological and laboratory tests. The assessment process may take three to six months to achieve.

Read more on Dementia Australia website

Planning: early stages | Dementia Australia

Helping someone at the early stages of losing capacity Many of the people who are losing capacity have mild cognitive impairment or are in the early stage of dementia. While each person’s experience will be different, it will be a challenging and confronting time for most people. The person losing capacity may not be aware of this happening to them. They may be confused, resentful or angry about this being suggested. Alternatively, they could be aware of it happening and respond with a range of emotions – such as acceptance, depression, confusion, anger or grief.

Read more on Dementia Australia website

Cognitive impairment and COVID-19 | Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care

During COVID-19, people with cognitive impairment may be further disoriented by the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) and find instructions such as social distancing hard to follow. There may be restrictions on family and carers who are usually there to support them.  

Read more on Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care website

Commission resources - All Events

These resources will help you gain a better understanding of caring for people with cognitive impairment

Read more on Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care website

My Healthcare Rights - A guide for people with cognitive impairment | Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care

This resource describes what to expect when going to hospital, information about informed consent and what to do if something doesn't go to plan. The Easy English version of this guide is available here

Read more on Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care website

Changes in thinking and memory - Cancer Council Victoria

You may notice changes in the way you think and remember information. This is called cancer-related cognitive impairment, 'cancer fog' or 'chemo brain'. 

Read more on Cancer Council Victoria website

A better way to care - Actions for consumers | Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care

A better way to care - Actions for consumers Downloads A better way to care - Actions for consumers Publication year 2014 Resource type Fact sheet or brochure Topics Cognitive impairment

Read more on Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care website

Healthdirect 24hr 7 days a week hotline

24 hour health advice you can count on

1800 022 222

Government Accredited with over 140 information partners

We are a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information and advice

Australian Government, health department logo ACT Government logo New South Wales government, health department logo Northen Territory Government logo Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Victorian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo

Healthdirect Australia acknowledges the Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and their continuing connection to land, sea and community. We pay our respects to the Traditional Owners and to Elders both past and present.