Many of us joke about those times when we forgot why we walked into a room or had difficulty recalling a person’s name. Although such “senior moments” become more common as you enter your 50s and 60s, it’s comforting to know that this minor forgetfulness is a normal sign of aging, not a sign of dementia.
But other types of memory loss, such as forgetting appointments or becoming disoriented in a familiar place, may indicate mild cognitive impairment.
An annual cognition checkup?
If you’re covered under Medicare, you are entitled to receive a routine cognitive screening evaluation at no cost as part of your yearly wellness visit. In addition to performing your annual physical exam, your doctor will assess your mental function.
To do this, your doctor observes you during your conversations together, takes into account any memory concerns expressed by you or loved ones, and asks a few questions about your memory. Some doctors use structured questionnaires or other tools for evaluation, as well.
Interestingly, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF)— an independent panel of medical experts—does not recommend routine cognitive screening for older adults. The USPSTF says there’s not enough scientific evidence to know whether the benefits of routine screening outweigh the harms.
Another approach comes from the Alzheimer’s Association, which advises doctors to ask during the annual wellness visit whether a patient has been experiencing signs or symptoms of cognitive troubles. If symptoms are present or if no one is available to confirm that they are not, a brief cognitive assessment should be performed.
Bottom line: If your primary care doctor doesn’t ask whether you (or your loved one) has been experiencing memory or thinking problems, but you feel that a cognitive assessment would be helpful, by all means bring it up. In addition to performing an initial assessment, the doctor can rule out underlying health problems that could be responsible, and, if necessary, refer you to a neurologist, a doctor who specializes in nervous system problems.
This article was adapted from Health After 50.
Also see Who Needs Alzheimer’s Testing?