5 things to know before a memory disorder evaluation

Close up of an elderly patients' hands working on an Alzheimer's disease test

By 2060, as many as 14 million Americans are expected to develop Alzheimer’s disease, one of the most common forms of memory disorders, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That’s about triple the amount of people who are now living with dementia.

Dementia isn’t a specific disease but is a general term to describe a variety of conditions that may affect memory, thinking and social abilities. There are many causes of dementia, with Alzheimer’s being only one cause. The effects of dementia on the brain prevent people from doing normal activities independently.

What is happening when memory loss occurs?

Memory loss happens when specific centers in the brain that encode or retrieve memories become damaged. This damage can be caused by many different conditions including aging, injuries, tumors, strokes or degenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.

What it’s like to be tested for dementia, memory loss or cognitive decline

Living a healthier lifestyle is one way to lower your risk of dementia. It’s also important to get tested early on if you believe you’re developing symptoms or are at risk for developing symptoms of memory loss or thinking problems.

Expect multiple trips to the doctor’s office for a diagnosis.

There is no single test to diagnose dementia. It takes a multi-prong approach to evaluate patients through cognitive screening, physical and neurological exams, interviews with family members, blood tests and imaging. You will have a doctor’s appointment and appointments for tests to get an accurate diagnosis. For the initial appointment, expect it to take about 80 minutes.

Bring a list of your medications.

Bring a complete list of medications and supplements you take. Some prescribed medications can cause cognitive symptoms. A physician can often find alternate drugs to treat conditions without the cognitive side effects.

Take the Self-Administered Gerocognitive Exam (SAGE) before your appointment.

If you’re concerned about your memory or a loved one’s, take the SAGE test. The test, which was developed at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, requires only a pen and paper. It’s four pages, and people take about 10-15 minutes on average to complete it. The test is offered in 14 different languages and additional translations are added as requested. The SAGE test is also available in a digital format to be taken on tablet or computer. The test helps physicians detect any memory, cognitive and thinking deficits. There’s no time limit. Make sure you don’t use a clock or a calendar while you’re taking the exam.

Bring the test with you when you visit your doctor who can interpret the results. The test results won’t be able to reveal a definitive diagnosis, but it can help your doctor assess you and potentially determine if additional testing is needed.

Don’t feel embarrassed.

As we age, it’s normal to have some memory loss and to have slower processing speed with our thinking. With normal aging, we can be reminded, and the memory will return. This is less true with Alzheimer’s disease. If memory issues become more evident, or if you notice problems with finding words/comprehension (language issues), behaviors, problem solving or socializing appropriately, you need to see your doctor to check for other conditions.

Unfortunately, sometimes people let symptoms go for months or even years before they seek help. However, there are lots of treatments for cognitive and thinking loss. Treatments, including medications, are much more effective if started at an early stage. In some cases, the cognitive loss can be reversed.

Prepare a list of questions to ask your doctor.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed at appointments with the amount of information you’re learning for the first time. Always take a loved one with you, if possible, and brainstorm questions ahead of time that you can take with you to ask. Some examples of questions include

  • Are my symptoms part of normal aging or the beginning of a dementia condition? If it is dementia, what’s the cause and what stage is it?
  • Are there medications I can take that can slow the decline, reverse it, or help reduce symptoms?
  • What symptoms can I expect next? What lifestyle changes can help?
  • Should I consider enrolling in a clinical trial?


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