Cognitive tests are short, quick tests to check how well your brain is functioning. These tests don’t diagnose specific diseases. Instead, they identify a problem with cognition and the need for more in-depth testing.
A cognitive test checks for problems with your mental function (how your brain processes thoughts). The test involves answering simple questions and performing simple tests.
The test is also called a cognitive screening test or cognitive assessment.
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Cognition is your brain’s ability to process all the information it takes in from your senses. Your brain is your body’s thought processing center.
Cognition involves intellectual activities, including:
Cognitive tests are usually done if there’s a suspicion of mental decline or impairment. You may have noticed such a decline yourself or a close friend or family member may have noticed.
Cognitive screening tests are simple, quick, basic tests. They help reveal if there’s a problem in some aspect of your cognition.
Cognitive screening tests don’t reveal any information about:
Based on your score, you may need more in-depth testing. If so, your healthcare provider will order a neuropsychological assessment.
Poor (low) scores provide more information than good (high) scores. A very low score usually means there’s some brain impairment. But a good score doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no brain impairment. There still could be brain functioning issues.
Cognitive screening tests aren’t specifically used to diagnose dementia. If your healthcare provider thinks you need more testing or other imaging tests, they’ll order these tests or refer you to a neurologist.
Cognitive screening tests check various brain functions. There are many screening tests. Each test checks one or more of the following:
There are many other screening tests. Others include the Memory Impairment Screen (MIS)/MIS by Telephone (MIS-T), Mental Status Questionnaire (MSQ), 8-item Informant Interview (AD8), Functional Activities Questionnaire (FAQ), 7-Minute Screen (7MS), Abbreviated Mental Test (AMT), St Louis University Mental Status Examination (SLUMS), Telephone Instrument for Cognitive Status (TICS) and Informant Questionnaire on Cognitive Decline in the Elderly (IQCODE).
You don’t need to prepare for a cognitive screening test. There aren’t any scans or physical tests. There aren’t physical risks, either. You can’t study for these quick, basic tests.
You’ll take these tests in a healthcare setting. They’re usually given by a physician or nurse who may or may not have formal training in brain health. Based on the results of these quick, simple tests, you may need more in-depth testing with a professional trained in brain health.
Your healthcare provider usually asks about your medical and medication history before ordering a cognitive screening test. They’ll order lab work and other tests or scans to rule out other causes of mental decline.
Some treatable or reversible conditions that affect mental functioning include:
Possible partially reversible causes of memory loss and cognitive impairment include:
Common and nonreversible causes of memory loss and brain function changes include:
There are some cognitive assessment tests that you or a loved one can take yourself. One such test is the Self-Administered Gerocognitive Exam (SAGE). You can find it on the internet. Like other cognitive tests, it assesses basic orientation (date, month, year), language, reasoning, calculations, visuospatial orientation (clock drawing), problem-solving and memory.
Remember, no cognitive test can diagnose Alzheimer’s disease, dementia or any other specific condition. However, the tests can be a helpful screening tool for mild cognitive impairment.
Taking an at-home cognitive test is a reasonable first step if you think you or a loved one is having trouble with memory, language, problem-solving and thinking.
After completing the test, make an appointment with your healthcare provider. Your healthcare provider can:
Cognitive impairment means you have a problem with cognition (processing thoughts). Mild cognitive impairment means you have a problem with mental function but it’s not severe enough to affect your daily functioning.
Symptoms of mild cognitive impairment include:
A neuropsychological assessment is an in-depth test given by a trained professional (a neuropsychologist). Neuropsychology determines how well your brain is working. This is the gold standard testing method. It’s a much more complete test than a cognitive test. It takes one to eight hours to complete, although two to four hours is typical.
Mental functions tested include:
Your test results are compared with other test results from people of the same age, gender and years of education. Pooling the results helps identify patterns. The patterns show which part of your brain isn’t working well. The test results also help your healthcare provider make the diagnosis and guide discussion of what you can do to improve your cognition and quality of life.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Taking a cognitive test and learning the results can be stressful, especially if your score is poor. Knowing your score is only the start of the process, though. You’ll need more testing to learn more. There are many treatable and reversible causes of cognitive impairment. If more testing shows signs of mild cognitive impairment or early dementia, treatment can be started. It also gives you and your family time to understand what to expect in the years ahead and prepare for future needs. Your healthcare team is here to help — to provide support and information, adjust your treatment or explore new options available through clinical trials.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 01/21/2022.
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