Caring Currents

Take the New 5-Minute Alzheimer's "Test" - And Then Do This

Last updated: Jun 16, 2009

Colour Pencils
Image by Stryker W@SP used under the creative commons attribution no derivs license.

Have you tried the new-and-improved screening test for Alzheimer's disease yet? It's hard to resist, because it's so straightforward and so quick. Proposed by UK researchers in last week's British Medical Journal, the new screening test is said to be more accurate than the commonly-used mini-mental state exam (MMSE). And unlike the MMSE, it doesn't require a trained professional to administer it.

First things first. Here's how to take the Test Your Memory test and how to score it. Bear in mind, though, that it was designed for British subjects. So "Who is the prime minister?" would more effectively be, "Who is the president?" for Americans, for example. And of course researchers want to test the test in more settings, with more population groups. But early reviews are glowing.

What's also great for caregivers: Although it's designed for use in a medical setting, this screen can be done at home in a pretty non-threatening way. You could even make it seem like a game -- useful if the person whose memory you worry about refuses to acknowledge slips or get evaluated.

Update: The scoring interpretation isn't included on the how-to-score-it link. The authors are planning a test website within a month (not yet active as of 6-17-09). Meanwhile, they say that the test is designed so that most healthy people with no educational problems should be able to score near to the maximum of 50 points. People with Alzheimer's tend to score an average of 33 points out of 50 and people with mild cognitive impairment score an average of 45 out of 50. A score above 42 correctly excludes Alzheimer's disease 97% of the time.

Okay, then. Whether you quiz a relative whose memory loss you've been concerned about, or maybe yourself (I did say it's irresistible), what next?

1. If results are reassuring, be reassured. The test detected Alzheimer's in 93 percent of the testees who had the disease (compared to only 52 percent detected through the MMSE, surprisingly). That's pretty darn good. Of course, it's only a screening test "“ not a way to diagnose the disease. Many things can cause dementia symptoms, from delirium to medications, injury, or infection. So if you see troubling stuff, don't ignore it no matter what a home-administered test says.

2. If results are worrisome, don't panic. If anything, a result indicating some cognitive impairment often brings a measure of relief: "Okay, I'm not crazy. I'm not imagining things here."

One criticism of early screening tests for Alzheimer's disease has been that there's no cure for the disease. There isn't. But there are effective medications approved for even early-stage cognitive decline, as well as many other treatment options to jump on. And the earlier these things begin, the better one's odds of supporting and maintaining current functioning longer.

3. Take concerning results to a qualified professional. Start with the person's (or your) family physician if that's easiest. Or, ideally, advance to a geriatrician (an MD specializing in aging) or a neurologist affiliated with a memory clinic or medical center. Express your concerns. A thorough evaluation can rule out other possible causes of cognitive trouble and provide a more detailed measure of current physical and mental status.

Alzheimer's screening tests can be a little confusing. No single test provides a flat-out diagnosis. And there are many different kinds of cognitive screens. (The MMSE is just one example, and has its own variations.) Different doctors have their favorites. This new test is hailed for seeming fast, easy, and probably more accurate

But my main takeaway on the new Alzheimer's test is this: If it helps a family concerned about Alzheimer's to ID the problem and quickly get help, then it's a welcome development worth trying.