Episodic memory is compromised in amnestic mild cognitive impairment (aMCI), but lesser deficits in other cognitive domains are also commonly observed and may be helpful in identifying this group. The relative difference in performance on lexical and semantic fluency tasks may be a sensitive and specific measure in aMCI and early Alzheimer's disease (AD). We compared four groups of participants, 35 early AD, 47 aMCI, 24 healthy controls, and 18 depressive out-patient controls, on semantic and lexical fluency as well as other neuropsychological tests. Early AD and aMCI patients showed a distinct pattern of semantic impairment in the two fluency measures compared with the healthy and depressive controls. The findings implicate early failure of the semantic memory system in aMCI and AD and suggest that consideration of the discrepancy in performance on semantic and lexical fluency measures may help in the early identification of AD.