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An online test you can take from home may be able to detect early signs of dementia.
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  • Dementia affects about 5 million adults over 65 years old in the United States.
  • A new test you can take at home may help detect early symptoms of the disease.
  • The test, known as SAGE, can be taken online or downloaded and completed at your doctor’s office.
  • The exam poses a series of questions involving identification of objects, math problems, and thinking tasks.
  • Experts say if a person’s score declines over a series of years, that could be a sign they are developing dementia.

A common belief is that dementia is a normal part of aging, but experts say that is not necessarily true.

According to the National Institutes of Health, dementia is not the age-related forgetfulness that might cause you to occasionally misplace your keys or glasses, have a difficult time finding a word, or forget what you did this morning.

These incidents are usually temporary.

We usually find our glasses, remember the word (even 1 or 2 hours later), and retrace our steps to remember what we did this morning.

Dementia is different.

People with dementia might get lost in a familiar neighborhood or use unusual words to refer to objects, such as a spatula as a “food turner.” They can also forget the names of close family members.

Dementia affects approximately 5 million adults over 65 years old in the United States. By the year 2060, this number could rise to 14 million.

Dementia is challenging to diagnose, especially in the early stages.

Many people do not seek help until a family member, friend, or healthcare professional notices significant memory loss, confusion, or difficulty with communication.

Now, a new test, known as the Self-Administered Gerocognitive Exam (SAGE), might help detect early signs and allow for treatment in the beginning stages.

“The test evaluates your thinking abilities and gives your doctor a way to see how they change over time,” according to Dr. Douglas Scharre, a professor of clinical neurology and psychiatry at the Wexner Medical Center at The Ohio State University.

“For people who don’t yet have symptoms or have mild symptoms, the first test is the baseline,” Scharre told Healthline. “Tests are then completed every 6 months, so your doctor can track symptoms. Losing a few points between tests, or over several years, could indicate the person might eventually develop dementia.”

The SAGE test is available on the Wexner Medical Center’s website. It includes questions about your current health, asks you to identify pictures of everyday items, complete simple math problems, and complete thinking tasks.

The exam can be downloaded and completed at home and then brought to your doctor for scoring. You can also print out the test and fill it out with your doctor present.

There is an online version that automatically scores the exam, but Scharre said, “the test is meant to be reviewed by your doctor.”

If scores decline, the first step is to determine if there is a physical or mental health cause, such as a vitamin deficiency, loss of kidney function, depression, or medication side effects.

“Experts believe that possibly 1 out of 3 cases of dementia could be prevented by addressing modifiable risk factors, such as eating a brain-healthy diet, regular physical exercise, good sleep habits, and healthy social connections,” Dr. Scott A. Kaiser, a geriatric medicine specialist at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute in Santa Monica, California, told Healthline.

“One of the greatest myths about dementia is there is nothing we can do. There is a wide range that can be done to improve the health and quality of life of people with dementia, but, for the most part, the earlier a problem is detected, the more that can be done,” said Kaiser.

Researchers at Ohio State University looked at whether this kind of simple written test could help detect early signs of dementia.

The results of their study, which Scharre was the lead researcher on, show that a decline in scores on the SAGE test indicated eventual dementia.

Based on a review of medical records, 424 individuals fit the criteria for the study. Of those people:

  • Forty had subjective cognitive decline (they felt their memories were getting worse but tested within the normal range).
  • Ninety-four had mild cognitive impairment that did not progress to dementia.
  • Seventy had mild cognitive impairment that did progress to dementia.
  • Two hundred twenty had dementia from the start of the study.

Participants were followed for 9 years and regularly given the SAGE test and the Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE), a widely used screening tool.

  • Participants who moved from mild cognitive impairment to dementia dropped 1.91 points per year on the SAGE test and 1.68 points per year on the MMSE.
  • Participants who had dementia from the start dropped 1.82 points per year on the SAGE test and 2.38 points per year on the MMSE.
  • Participants with subjective cognitive decline and who had mild cognitive impairment without advancing to dementia remained stable on both tests.

One concern is that people could “game the system” and study the questions on the tests to get a higher score. “That isn’t a concern. There are four tests, and each time they get one, it is different. They will only get the same test every 2 years,” Scharre said.

“Suppose someone has the cognitive fortitude to study the test or memorize it and remember it 2 years later. If someone is trying to game the system, that is someone whose thinking and memory skills are good and probably doesn’t have cognitive decline,” he said.

“Some individuals might not be concerned enough to seek medical attention and the ability to perform a simple test at home is invaluable in such situations,” Dr. Sachin R. Nagrani, a family medicine doctor in Brooklyn, New York, told Healthline.

“I would encourage a brief screening test as a starting point, whether it be a self-administered paper-and-pencil test, a computerized test or smartphone app, or a traditional screening test with a trusted primary care physician,” he said.

“Discussing these concerns with a primary care physician is also very important because these tests provide a snapshot in time, and we also care about the moving picture over time,” Nagrani said.