What is a mental ability test?

Mental ability test for dementia diagnosis

Mental ability tests can be used if you’re struggling with your memory or thinking skills, and are part of the process for diagnosing dementia. Senior Cardiac Nurse Emily McGrath hears from Professor Lisa Cipolotti.

Why would someone have a mental ability test? 

People are referred to have a cognitive or neuropsychological assessment if they or their loved ones have concerns about their memory or other thinking skills, such as language, perception, reasoning, judgement, problem solving, reading or writing. These tests can't diagnose dementia on their own.

What will a mental ability test reveal?

The neuropsychological assessment will be able to tell them or their doctor whether their thinking skills have changed. This can help doctors understand what might be happening in the brain.

Will I need further tests afterwards?

Including variety of tasks helps us assess how different types of thinking skills and areas of the brain are functioning

Depending on how you do on some of the more simple tests, you may be referred to a neuropsychologist to do more detailed cognitive tests.

Cognitive tests are only one aspect of assessing brain functioning. If there is an indication that there is a problem, you may be referred to see a specialist and have further tests such as a brain scan.

Where would you have a mental ability test?

Simple cognitive tests are often conducted in GP practices by doctors or nurses.

If needed, more detailed neuropsychological testing can be done in specialist memory clinics, or in hospitals by a neuropsychologist who has special training in conducting and interpreting cognitive tests. Sometimes, assessments can be conducted in people’s homes.

What sorts of tests are used?

There are a variety of tests to assess cognitive skills, from simple tests like the Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MoCA), which was recently given to the President of the United States, to more complex tests such as the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS), or tests of memory, language, perception and so forth.

What kind of questions do they ask?

Tests often involve a combination of spoken responses and pen-and-paper tasks. Questions can vary from simple ones such as ‘What is the date today?’ to more difficult ones such as ‘What is the similarity between a watch and a ruler?’

People are often asked to remember a list of words, draw things such as a clock, and solve visual puzzles. Including a variety of tasks helps us assess how different types of thinking skills and areas of the brain are functioning. 

The purpose of the tests is to assess you so that you can get the right treatment or support if you need it

How long do mental agility tests last?

Depending on how detailed the testing is, it can last from five to ten minutes or longer in some cases. 

Do I need to do anything to prepare?

You don’t need to prepare anything. All the information and instructions will be given during the testing. It is important that you have your glasses or hearing aids if you usually use them. 

Do I need to worry whether I 'pass' or 'fail' the test?

It is natural to worry about whether you do well on the tests. But try not to. The purpose of the tests is to assess you so that you can get the right treatment or support if you need it.

During the test itself it is often difficult to tell whether you are doing ‘well’ or not. The doctor or neuropsychologist will need to put all the information together to work out what it means. So try to relax, and wait for the feedback from the doctor or neuropsychologist after the tests.

Are mental agility tests suitable for everyone?

Some tests may not be suitable for people from non-English speaking backgrounds. Also, people with severe visual or motor impairment may find it hard to complete some aspects of the tests. However, a neuropsychologist would be able to adapt the tests so that people can still be assessed.

What are the latest developments in this area?

Here at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, we are currently working on new tests that can better assess active thinking processes, such as judgement, reasoning and problem solving.

We know that difficulties with these areas can be an early sign of vascular dementia. We hope to help people better understand their difficulties and provide useful strategies for overcoming them.

Professor Lisa CipolottiProfessor Lisa Cipolotti

  • Head of Neuropsychology Department, National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, London
  • Professor of Neuropsychology, University College London
  • Lead of Psychology Services and Associate Clinical Director for Specialist Services, University College Hospital, London
  • Author of more than 190 scientific papers
  • Researcher on CROMIS-2 study, funded by the BHF and Stroke Association, which explored tiny bleeds in the brain and what these can tell us about stroke risk.

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