Breaking News
More () »

In Sickness and in Health | A family's journey navigating mild cognitive impairment

Doctors and patients living with the issue tell us there's help and hope as patients living with MCI can maintain most of their independence.

SAN DIEGO — May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and we're taking a closer look at mild cognitive impairment, more commonly called MCI.

Mild cognitive impairment is an early memory or other cognitive ability loss stage. Doctors and patients living with the issue tell us there is help and hope as patients living with MCI can maintain most of their independence.

John and Donna Shean just celebrated their 57th wedding anniversary. Donna shared sweetly while sitting beside John, "We met on April 19. We got engaged on October 16. Got married May 7th and had our first daughter April 23.” John chimed in with a laugh, “In Chicago during a snowstorm, April 23. And between a tornado also."

Donna said she noticed an issue with John’s driving, particularly his parking, and she asked a doctor if it was related to his recent cataract surgery. "He said, it's like dementia. It’s the depth perception. So we stopped driving,” Donna said. That’s when she reached out for help. "I called San Diego Alzheimer's and talked to Lourdes. I said this is what's going on. It's scary, and they talked me through it all."

Dr. Abraham Chyung is with Alzheimer's in San Diego and says there are standardized tests for patients with symptoms of memory loss. “If the score is close to normal, there’s not much to worry about. If the score is very bad, it may indicate dementia. And if it's somewhere in between, that's how mild cognitive impairment gets diagnosed."

Donna and John say they found help with several programs and resources right here in San Diego, like Alzheimer’s San Diego, Jewish Family Services, and many more. Donna says the memory exercises are effective. Donna notes, "They ask about national landmarks; who lived in the White House? Or where did George Washington live?" John says his favorite exercise is music therapy. John’s eyes lit up as he smiled and shared, "It's just that music soothes the soul and gives you something God-like. God likes music." 

Donna noted that the music fills the couple with joy. "Music is so stimulating to your brain. Not only because you start listening to the words,” Donna continued, “John knows all the words, as I do. But music jogs your memory."

Donna adds staying active, physically and mentally, is not only important for John, but it also helps her as his caretaker as well. "So, all of that is stimulating to your brain. It keeps you active. You're not lying in bed, sleeping, or watching TV all day. "You don't have to have Alzheimer's in your family to get it.” Donna informs, “You need to try to keep alert, exercise, move around, and eat right. All those things help."

"Someone with mild cognitive impairment is still functional,” Dr. Chyung adds. “They can live independently, work, or do whatever they want. But they start having memory problems, and by the time they reach the diagnosis of dementia, they're functionally impaired." 

Dr. Chyung says not all memory loss is a sign of a serious problem, but he says to talk with your doctor to be certain. "Many other things, such as sleep difficulty, anxiety, depression, and medication side effects, can cause a mild degree of memory impairment. If we can diagnose people at an earlier stage of the memory deficit and start the treatment earlier, we would have a more robust effect in improving their lives." 

Dr. Chyung says doctors are celebrating a clinical trial’s results with an experimental Alzheimer’s medication in people in the earliest stages of the disease. “It turns out in the clinical trial that was done, people that showed any signs of benefit from the treatment are those with mild dementia and mild cognitive impairment."

During our interview, John experienced a few symptoms of mild cognitive impairment, such as confusion and memory loss. However, John says he will never forget how grateful he is to Donna for loving him and being by his side in sickness and health. 

John proudly said, "If you're going to get sick or if you're going to contract something that's going to impair your life, God help you if you can't find a person who will stick by your side.” John smiled and looked confidently at Donna as the room filled with love, “She's been so loyal."

If you or someone you love is dealing with memory loss, make an appointment with your doctor. Click here to visit Alzheimer’s San Diego or call them at (858) 492-4400.

Watch Related: Alzheimer’s disease clinical trial taking place in San Diego County (Feb 17, 2023)

Before You Leave, Check This Out