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Cognitive impairment

Cognitive impairment can cause problems with a person’s thinking, communication, understanding or memory. It might be a short-term problem or a permanent condition. It can be difficult to know how to look after someone with cognitive impairment, but help is available.

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.

Causes of 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:

Diagnosis of cognitive impairment

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. 

Treatment and management of cognitive impairment

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.

Last reviewed: May 2016

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