Contrary to popular belief, there is no single memory test for dementia. To diagnose dementia, a combination of assessments and tests is required, which can be carried out by either a GP or a specialist at a memory clinic or hospital. If a person is referred to a specialist, a more detailed medical history will be taken. The doctor will ask about the onset and severity of symptoms and check whether any pre-existing conditions, such as heart disease or stroke, are being managed properly. Additionally, the doctor will review any medications being taken, including over-the-counter and alternative products.
Here we look at what’s usually part of the wider concept of a memory test for dementia, as well as specific tests that may be used to reach diagnosis.
To begin the process of diagnosis, it is important to have a conversation with your doctor regarding any concerns you may have. To ensure all necessary information is provided, bringing along a trusted family member or friend can be helpful.
It is recommended to also bring a detailed list of any memory and cognitive changes you have experienced, along with the timeline of when they began and how often they occur. Additionally, bringing a list of current medications or bringing the medications themselves is a wise decision. This helps your doctor to get a good understanding of the symptoms you are experiencing and the context in which they are happening.
Your doctor may evaluate your situation and refer you to a specialist such as a geriatrician, neurologist, or psychiatrist to further assess any potential illnesses or disabilities related to ageing, disorders of the brain and nerves, or disorders of emotion and behaviour. Often, you will be referred to what’s called a memory clinic.
Diagnosing dementia is somewhat complex and also involves a lot of elimination of other potential causes of memory loss. This is why there is no single memory test for dementia. Instead, a number of different assessments and tests may take place, including:
There are many different types of cognitive test that can be used, some are a memory test for dementia, some test things like language skills. Tests include:
Most tests involve a set of pen-and-paper tasks and questions, each assigned a score. These evaluations evaluate several cognitive abilities, such as short- and long-term memory, attention span and concentration, language and communication skills, and orientation to time and place. A person may get different scores on tests according to their baseline education and ability, but this will be taken into account by the healthcare professional.
After simpler tests have ruled out other conditions, brain scans are sometimes used to diagnose dementia. However, like memory tests, they cannot diagnose dementia on their own but are utilised as part of a broader evaluation.
Brain scans may not be necessary for everyone, particularly if other assessments suggest that dementia is a probable diagnosis. Additionally, these scans can reveal other possible issues that may explain a person's symptoms, such as a stroke or a brain tumour, which may themselves cause .
An MRI scan is sometimes used to confirm a diagnosis of dementia and determine the type of dementia. It can also provide detailed information about blood vessel damage that occurs in vascular dementia. It may even show shrinkage in specific areas of the brain, such as the frontal and temporal lobes, which are primarily affected by frontotemporal dementia, while only the temporal lobes are impacted in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease.
A CT scan may be used to identify signs of a stroke or brain tumour, but it does not provide detailed brain structure information.
Even if a brain scan does not reveal any apparent changes, it does not exclude the possibility of dementia. If the results of an MRI or CT scan are uncertain, other types of scans such as a SPECT or PET scan may be recommended. However, most individuals will not require these types of scans. Both SPECT and PET scans analyse brain function and can identify abnormalities in blood flow.
We understand that the diagnosis process for dementia can be a stressful and difficult time for families. While there are many elements to a memory test for dementia, it’s important that the patient and loved ones feel supported. Ultimately, dementia is degenerative and long-term care may provide the best support for families and people living with dementia.