Getting Social Security Disability for Neurocognitive Decline

Social Security has adopted a new disability listing for neurocognitive disorders.

Neurocognitive disorders involve cognitive decline: a loss in the ability to think, use judgment, plan, or remember things. Injuries and diseases that can cause neurocognitive disorders include stroke, traumatic brain injuries, or dementia (usually caused by Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, or brain damage from drug or alcohol abuse or exposure to toxins). The cognitive decline involved in these disorders is not usually reversible and often gets worse over time.

Social Security’s Listing for Neurocognitive Disorders

In 2017, Social Security published a disability listing for neurocognitive disorders, listing 12.02. The requirements of this listing, previously called "organic mental disorders," have changed significantly. To get disability benefits by meeting the requirements of the listing, a disability applicant must have experienced a significant cognitive decline in one of the following areas:

  • learning and memory, especially short-term memory
  • use of language, grammar, recalling words
  • executive function (judgment, planning ability, inhibiting impulses)
  • paying attention to tasks or listening to and understanding others
  • eye-hand coordination or coordination in walking and moving, or
  • ability to use proper social behavior in different situations.

If an applicant shows a significant decline in one or more of the above areas, Social Security will look at how severely the limitations affect the applicant’s ability to perform work activities. An applicant is eligible for disability benefits if the disorder causes an extreme limitation in one of the following areas or a severe limitation in two of the following areas:

  • understanding, remembering, or using information (ability to understand instructions, learn new things, and apply learning)
  • interacting with others (ability to follow social standards)
  • concentrating and maintaining pace in performing tasks (ability to complete tasks), or
  • controlling behavior and adapting to change (being aware of normal hazards and taking appropriate precautions, understanding acceptable work performance, and maintaining hygiene and attire appropriate to a work setting).

Note that Social Security doesn‘t evaluate autistic disorders, intellectual disability (low IQ), learning disorders, or other neurodevelopmental disorders under this listing.

Evidence Social Security Will Look At

First Social Security will look at the applicant’s medical records from a primary care doctor, a neurologist, and/or a psychiatrist/psychologist. When Social Security can’t determine the severity of a neurocognitive disorder from the medical information in an applicant’s medical records, the agency will ask the applicant to attend a consultative evaluation by a Social Security psychiatrist or psychologist.

Applicants should make sure their doctors are aware of the problems and limitations they experience with their activities of daily living and work-like activities. They may want to bring a family member or caregiver to their doctor’s appointments to make sure the treating doctor is aware of their problems and puts them in the applicant’s chart.

Social Security will also consider letters sent by family members, relatives, caregivers, or former employers that discuss the problems an applicant experiences.

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