Why get a memory screening?
Everyone forgets things. Most people at one time in their lives have forgotten their keys or that they're out of milk. But there are some problems with memory function that might prompt the need for a medical evaluation.
Oftentimes, people get memory screenings after either they or their family members think they might be suffering from memory problems. Sometimes a person's primary care physician might suggest a memory screening, or memory test.
It can be difficult for family members or friends to suggest a memory screening, because it's often a touchy subject. No one wants to be told they might be suffering from memory loss. The Fisher Center for Alzheimer's Research Foundation has information for caregivers on approaching the subject.
There are multiple reasons why a person might suffer from dementia. Some patients are suffering from dementia because of medications they're taking. For example, prescription narcotics can cause short-term memory problems.
The word “dementia” makes most people think of Alzheimer's, but there are several types of dementia. Vascular dementia, frontotemporal dementia and Lewy Body dementia are examples of other types of dementia.
Additionally, minor head trauma, depression, tumors, hypothyroidism, alcoholism and a vitamin B-12 deficiency are all things that can cause dementia.
What happens during a memory screening?
There is no specific set of questions that doctors have for a memory screening. Oftentimes, it's simply a conversation between you and your doctor or neurologist. It's generally not done in a formal hospital setting but rather one-on-one in a doctor's office. It's important to note that there is no test that can tell you whether you have Alzheimer's.
During your screening, your doctor will ask you questions about yourself and your medical history. Also, your doctor or neurologist will likely want to know what medications you're taking and what medications you've taken in the last six months to a year.
Your doctor might order an imaging test, such as an MRI or a PET scan. Your doctor might also order various lab tests. These tests could give your doctor more insight. For example, if an MRI shows that you have severe atrophy in your frontal lobe, you might be suffering from frontotemporal dementia, a rare and permanent form of dementia.
Your doctor might run a Mini-Mental State Examination, a series of questions and tests that will analyze your mental abilities, attention and language skills. It might take a few visits before your doctor gives you a conclusive diagnosis.
Does it hurt?
It shouldn't. There are generally no needles used unless your blood is drawn, and there's not a surgical arm of memory tests. A memory test is primarily focused on your mental capacity, unless your doctor suspects your memory loss is connected with an imbalance or deficiency in your body.
What are the risk factors?
As with any screening, you could get what's known as a false positive, a result that says you have something that you don't. A false positive can cause a person a lot of anxiety until they find out their diagnosis is false. Also, some people are against some screenings because they can cost money, and people sometimes don't give the results to their primary care doctors.
What's the follow-up?
The amount of times you go back will depend on what your doctor finds — or doesn't find, during your initial visit. You might not leave with a diagnosis the first time. It's important to be honest with your doctor and ask questions about any of your concerns. Memory loss can be a scary thing to face, but it's important to follow the advice of your doctor.
Source: Dr. Matthew Ryan, a neurologist with Norman Regional Health System; The Mayo Clinic; The Alzheimer's Society; The Fisher Center for Alzheimer's Research Foundation; National Institutes of Health; Medline Plus.