Testing for Dementia: The Mini Mental Status Exam

testing for dementia

A commonly used test for dementia

If you’re concerned because your older adult might be showing signs of dementia (not just the forgetfulness of normal aging), the first step is for them to visit their primary doctor for a full check-up.

If there aren’t any obvious causes of dementia-like symptoms, like a UTI, many doctors use a test called the Mini Mental Status Exam (MMSE) to screen for possible cognitive issues.


How the Mini Mental Status Exam works

The MMSE is a common way of testing for dementia. It’s popular because it only takes 5 – 10 minutes and doesn’t require any equipment or special training for doctors or nurses.

The test has 30 questions, each worth 1 point. These questions test memory, orientation, and math skills.

The MMSE usually includes questions that measure:

  • Sense of date and time
  • Sense of location
  • Ability to remember a short list of common objects and later, repeat it back
  • Attention and ability to do basic math, like counting backward from 100 by increments of 7
  • Ability to name a couple of common objects
  • Complex cognitive function, like asking someone to draw a clock

The grading scale is:

  • 25 or more points = no problem
  • 21-24 points = mild cognitive impairment
  • 10-20 points = moderate cognitive impairment
  • 0-9 points = severe cognitive impairment

If someone gets a score in the 0 to 20 range, it can indicate cognitive issues. It doesn’t mean that they have dementia. It does mean that more extensive physical and cognitive testing should be done.


The MMSE alone can’t be used to diagnose dementia

The MMSE is a useful general screening tool, but can’t be used to diagnose dementia because there are many factors that could affect the test results.

Complicating factors include:

  • Physical injuries
  • Physical conditions like sleep apnea, which can cause memory or other cognitive problems
  • Conditions like depression
  • Trouble with math, especially for those with limited education
  • Trouble with language, especially for non-native English speakers, those who don’t speak any English, and people with limited education
  • Having a form of dementia that isn’t significantly affecting memory


Beware of one-time memory test events

Sometimes you’ll see events with one-time memory screenings at shopping malls or health fairs.

Experts recommend avoiding those tests, even if they use the MMSE.

Taking a quick test without a medical evaluation isn’t an effective way to screen for dementia and is more likely to cause unnecessary fear and worry.


Bottom line

If you’re worried about your older adult’s cognitive abilities, take them to their doctor for a full check-up.

No matter what they score on the Mini Mental Status Exam, don’t consider those results as the final answer. Many factors could influence the score, both positively and negatively. This is only one of many dementia diagnosis tools.


Next Step  What caregivers need to know about the MMSE’s limitations


By DailyCaring Editorial Staff
Sources: Dementia.org, Kaiser Health News
Image: StarTribune


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