5 evidence-based tips for living with mild cognitive impairment or dementia

The Bottom Line

  • Try one or more of a variety of strategies that can help improve cognition and mental health among people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or dementia.  
  • Visual art therapy may enhance cognitive function and reduce anxiety in people with MCI. 
  • Non-drug options such as massage therapy, personally tailored interventions, animal-assisted interventions, and pet robot interventions may decrease agitation in adults with dementia.    
  • Computerized cognitive training has cognitive benefits for people with MCI, while offering those with dementia some assistance in this area as well.   
  • Combined brain training and physical activity can boost cognitive function in older adults with or without MCI. 
  • Cognitive training can lessen the severity of depressive symptoms in people with MCI or dementia.

From difficulty learning new things and making decisions to the loss of independence and ability to complete basic daily activities to depression, anxiety, and agitation, living with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or dementia has implications for one’s cognitive health and mental health (1-3). If you’re one of the millions of people coping with a diagnosis of either MCI or dementia or are a caregiver of someone with dementia, you’re likely regularly on the hunt for new approaches to help manage the various aspects of these conditions. Here are a few research-based strategies that can be used to improve cognitive health and mental well-being in people with MCI or dementia. Click on the links below to learn more.

1. Get in touch with your artistic side

Visual art therapy—a strategy that revolves around using different supplies, approaches, and styles to produce art—can hold cognitive and/or mental health benefits. Take, for example, people with MCI. In this group, engaging in visual art therapy may lead to significant improvements in cognitive function and small reductions in anxiety. Additionally, this activity may moderately reduce depressive symptoms in people with dementia (4).

2. Become familiar with your non-drug options

The vast majority of people living with dementia experience agitation—a behavioural issue that is not effectively treated by prescribed medications such as anti-psychotics (5;6). This, coupled with the side effects that can accompany these medications, encourages the use of non-drug treatment options (7;8). In particular, massage therapy, personally tailored interventions, animal-assisted interventions, and pet robot interventions may offer a small to moderate reduction in agitation in adults with dementia (5).

3. Turn on your tech for some computerized brain games

Computerized cognitive training refers to computer programs—such as video games, virtual reality activities, and online activities—that aim to improve cognition (e.g., memory, attention, learning, and overall cognition). In people with MCI, computerized cognitive training can lead to moderate short-term improvements in overall cognition, verbal and non-verbal learning, psychosocial functioning, and attention. Large improvements in working memory are another potential benefit. Computerized cognitive training may also provide moderate short-term improvements in visuospatial skills and small improvements in overall cognitive outcomes in people with dementia (9).

4. Exercise both your mind and body

Although brain games are a promising approach, combining brain training and physical activity is another strategy that can enhance cognitive function in older adults with or without MCI. Conducting these two activities simultaneously, as opposed to one after the other, may be best (10). In addition to reaping the cognitive rewards, getting in a regular dose of physical exercise is sure to have benefits on other aspects of your physical and mental health.

5. Consider cognitive training as a tool for more than just cognition 

Beyond its effects on cognitive outcomes, the benefits of cognitive training—computerized cognitive training, cognitive training and rehabilitation, and cognitive stimulation—appear to extend to mental health, as well. Cognitive training can reduce the severity of depressive symptoms in people with MCI or dementia. The size of the effect may differ based on the specific type of training used (11).

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Author Details


  1. Song D, Yu D, Li P, et al. The effectiveness of physical exercise on cognitive and psychological outcomes in individuals with mild cognitive impairment: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Int J Nurs Stud. 2018; 79:155-164. doi: 10.1016/j.ijnurstu.2018.01.002.   
  2. Hill N, Mowszowski L, Naismith S, et al. Computerized cognitive training in older adults with mild cognitive impairment or dementia: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Am J Psychiatry. 2017; 74(4):329-340. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2016.16030360.  
  3. Fink HA, Jutkowitz J, McCarten R, et al. Pharmacologic interventions to prevent cognitive decline, mild cognitive impairment, and clinical Alzheimer-type dementia: A systematic review. Ann Intern Med. 2018; 168(1):39-51. doi: 10.7326/M17-1529.  
  4. Malika GM, Yu DSF, Li PWC. Visual art therapy as a treatment option for cognitive decline among older adults. A systematic review and meta-analysis. J Adv Nurs. 2020; 76:1892-1910.  
  5. Leng M, Zhao Y, Wang Z. Comparative efficacy of non-pharmacological interventions on agitation in people with dementia: A systematic review and Bayesian network meta-analysis. Int J Nurs Stud. 2020; 102:103489. doi: 10.1016/j.ijnurstu.2019.103489. 
  6. van der Linde RM, Dening T, Stephan B, et al. Longitudinal course of behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia: Systematic review. Br J Psychiatry. 2016; 209(5):366-377. doi: 10.1192/bjp.bp.114.148403.
  7. Livingston G, Kelly L, Lewis-Holmes E, et al. Non-pharmacological interventions for agitation in dementia: systematic review of randomised controlled trials. Br J Psychiatry. 2014; 205:436-442. doi: 10.1192/bjp.bp.113.141119.  
  8. Maher AR, Maglione M, Bagley S, et al. Efficacy and comparative effectiveness of atypical antipsychotic medications for off-label uses in adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA. 2011; 306:1359-1369.
  9. Hill NT, Mowszowski L, Naismith SL, et al. Computerized Cognitive Training in Older Adults With Mild Cognitive Impairment or Dementia: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Am J Psychiatry. 2016. 
  10. Gheysen F, Poppe L, DeSmet A, et al. Physical activity to improve cognition in older adults: Can physical activity programs enriched with cognitive challenges enhance the effects? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2018; 15(1):63. doi: 10.1186/s12966-018-0697-x. 
  11. Chan JYC, Chan TK, Kwok TCY, et al. Cognitive training interventions and depression in mild cognitive impairment and dementia: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Age Ageing. 2020; 49:738-747.  

DISCLAIMER: These summaries are provided for informational purposes only. They are not a substitute for advice from your own health care professional. The summaries may be reproduced for not-for-profit educational purposes only. Any other uses must be approved by the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal (info@mcmasteroptimalaging.org).

Many of our Blog Posts were written before the COVID-19 pandemic and thus do not necessarily reflect the latest public health recommendations. While the content of new and old blogs identify activities that support optimal aging, it is important to defer to the most current public health recommendations. Some of the activities suggested within these blogs may need to be modified or avoided altogether to comply with changing public health recommendations. To view the latest updates from the Public Health Agency of Canada, please visit their website.