Is there a test for the early signs of dementia?

Written by Christophe Locatelli11/07/23

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Dementia Care

Is there a test to detect dementia early? 

 It’s important to know that screening for dementia takes time. It can’t be done in a single test. A qualified healthcare professional will likely do a number of mental and physical assessments as part of the diagnostic process

As there’s no cure for dementia, you may wonder why getting a professional diagnosis is so important. While a diagnosis of dementia is life-changing  – the earlier diagnosis happens, the more effective treatments are likely to be at managing symptoms, and potentially slowing down the progression of some symptoms. 

An accurate diagnosis can also be an important step in ensuring people get the support they need – from emotional and community support, to home adaptations that can make daily life easier. 

Can I test myself for dementia?

Each type of dementia has different symptoms that can emerge at different times. This is why it’s vital to seek an official diagnosis from a doctor if you or a loved one is experiencing anything you’re worried about. 

For example, people with Alzheimer’s may have more early symptoms such as depression and impaired memory. While, Lewy body dementia, on the other hand, may cause symptoms that people may not necessarily associate with dementia, like tremors or muscle stiffness. 

If you’re at greater risk of dementia – for example if you have a history of stroke, it’s even more crucial to see a doctor at the first signs. 

Very mild dementia might be difficult to spot – some of the early signs, such as forgetting from time to time, or being unable to recall the right word in a conversation, may simply be a normal part of ageing. 

If in doubt, speak to your GP. 

Common warning signs to look out for may include: 

  • A change in your thinking abilities that impacts your daily life.
  • Reoccurring memory loss.
  • Difficulty performing daily tasks that you’ve been able to do in the past.
  • Feeling disorientated when it comes to time and place.
  • Poor judgement or finding it difficult to make decisions.
  • Misplacing things or thinking people are moving things without telling you.
  • Finding it more difficult to communicate.

Mental ability tests to diagnose dementia

While everyone experiences dementia in different ways, People with dementia will often experience some level of cognitive decline in the early stages. 

When discussing your symptoms with your GP, they may wish to do some form of cognitive tests to find out more about your mental abilities. This will help them understand if a referral to a dementia specialist is necessary. 

Remember, dementia can’t be diagnosed with a single test. Any test done by your GP will be used to highlight memory difficulties and whether further investigation is needed. 

There are a number of tests GPs may choose to do, however the most common is the General Practitioner Assessment of Cognition (GPCOG).

The CPCOG is made up of two parts. The first part is a series of questions and tasks for the person experiencing symptoms. The second is a set of questions for an ‘informant’ – usually a relative, partner or close friend. 

The person experiencing symptoms will be asked things like what the current time and date is, and to recall a current news story. They’ll usually complete cognitive tasks too, such as drawing a clock with the hands pointing to a specific time. 

The informant will usually complete a questionnaire about their loved one’s actions, behaviour and memory, and how this compares to 5 to 10 years ago. 

The clock test for dementia

This is a commonly recognised test for impaired thinking or cognitive decline. It involves drawing a clock on a blank sheet of paper – adding the numbers in the correct places, and drawing the clock hands indicating a specific time. 

The drawing is judged on a number of criteria –

  • How well the person drew the circle – i.e is it round, or does it veer off to one side
  • Have they written all the numbers from 1 -12, in the right order?
  • Have they repeated any numbers?
  • Are all the numbers on the clock face and in the right place and spaced fairly evenly?
  • Did they draw both the hour and minute hand on the clock?
  • Are the hands pointing to the time they were asked to draw?

 

The clock test has long been a quick screening tool for dementia with an accuracy between 59% and 85%. However, the clock test cannot distinguish between different forms of dementia. It’s also worth noting that some illnesses and medication can make it difficult to complete the clock test accurately too. Being unable to complete the task may not always point to a dementia-causing disease.

 
Dementia test
A woman drawing a clock face as part of a dementia screening

The SAGE Test for dementia

The Self-Administered Gerocognitive Examination (SAGE) can be described as a 15-minute ‘at home’ test for dementia. The test was developed in America by the Wexner Medical Center at Ohio State University and is not widely used in the UK. 

The test is a simple pen-and-paper test used to identify potential problems with cognition. The test is split into six sections assessing orientation, language, abstract thinking, visuospatial skills, problem-solving, and memory issues. 

It’s important to emphasise that any at-home assessments or quiz you do to test your thinking skills should only be done as supporting evidence to share with your doctor. They are not a means of ruling out or diagnosing dementia yourself.

What conditions can be mistaken for dementia?

There are a number of medical conditions that may cause dementia-like symptoms. Many of these conditions are treatable too. 

Mental health conditions and stress can sometimes lead to memory loss and confusion. Anxiety for example, can fill a person with worry, which can take over how they think and process information – making it more difficult to focus on or remember things. 

Depression is also another mental health condition that could be confused for the early signs of dementia. It’s estimated that in the UK, depression affects 22% of men and 28% of women over the age of 65. 85% of those receive little to no help for the condition.  

Symptoms like low self-esteem, sudden changes in mood, low concentration and memory problems are all things that can be experienced by people living with depression or dementia. 

Physical illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, kidney, liver, and lung problems can also produce dementia-like symptoms. Very sudden changes in behaviour and thinking can sometimes be caused by an infection or brain tumour – both are often treatable when caught early. 

A change in someone’s vision or hearing may cause them to lose things more easily, bump into things at home, or struggle with conversation – so it’s important to test these senses regularly. 

To rule out these causes of dementia-like symptoms, your GP may choose to run some blood tests and take a thorough look at your medical history. 

Referral to a dementia specialist

If your GP believes there’s a need for further investigation into your symptoms, you’ll usually be referred to something called a memory clinic. This is a specialist centre where a dementia doctor will perform a series of tests to assess memory, and may be offered a brain scan such as CAT, MRI and SPECT scans. These scans can identify areas of the brain where the brain cells have become damaged, and help figure out whether you’re living with dementia.

As part of the neurological exam, the doctor will usually ask you to complete some short tasks to test your memory and brain function. 

They may run some laboratory tests too – so you may be asked to supply a urine sample.

To find out more about what to expect at a memory clinic, take a look at our complete guide. 

This article is for informational purposes only and not to be taken as medical advice. For medical advice, always consult your GP.

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