Simple Written Exam May Detect Alzheimer’s Early

January 20, 2010

January 20, 2010

A quick and simple mental agility quiz may help detect Alzheimer’s disease more easily and accurately, a new report suggests. The test, called TYM, for “Test Your Memory,”proved more accurate than other common tests used to assess possible Alzheimer’s disease.

Currently, most doctors use the MMSE, or mini-mental state exam, to detect Alzheimer’s disease. In that test, doctors might mention three objects at the start of a patient interview, such as an apple, penny and pencil, then ask the patient to recall those objects five minutes later.

One of the advantages of the test is that it is very easy to perform, taking only five minutes or so to complete. Patients can even complete the quiz while waiting in a doctor’s office. But, experts caution, doing poorly on the test is far from a sure sign of Alzheimer’s. The disease can be diagnosed definitely only on an autopsy of the brain after death.

Still, a quick and easy Alzheimer’s test would prove useful for screening patients who may have the brain-ravaging ailment. Patients suspected of having Alzheimer’s may, for example, benefit from early diagnosis, which can aid with planning. Medications may also be most effective early in the course of the disease, though none of the currently existing drugs can halt the downward progression of symptoms.

In the study, researchers in the U.K. gave tests to 134 men and women who were visiting a health clinic because of memory problems. They were compared with 540 people whose thinking and memory remained sharp. The findings appeared online in the British medical journal BMJ.

The test is fairly simple and requires that patients complete a series of 10 general tasks like copying a sentencing, naming objects or completing simple math equations. Patients are ranked based on a high score of 50. Sample questions include:

  1. Why is a carrot like a potato?
  2. Draw the hands of a clock so the time reads 9:20.
  3. List four animals starting with the letter “S.”
  4. What is 16 + 17?

The test identified more than 90 percent of men and women who were strongly suspected of having Alzheimer’s disease. In contrast, the MMSE identified only about half of such patients.

Some critics contend that the MMSE is too general. It also must be done by a doctor or nurse. Sample questions on the MMSE include: Spell the word “WORLD” backward. Identify these objects: the doctor holds up a pencil; points to a watch. Or follow this command: Place the index finger of your right hand on your nose, and then on your left ear.

The researchers say that more study must be done to validate the TYM test. They hope to make it available online in the coming months.

By www.ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by William J. Netzer, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University.


Jeremy Brown, consultant neurologist, George Pengas, clinical research fellow, Kate Dawson, research nurse, Lucy A Brown, honorary research assistant, Philip Clatworthy, clinical research fellow: “Self Administered Cognitive Screening Test (TYM) for Detection ofAlzheimer’s Disease: Cross-Sectional Study.” BMJ Online, 2009


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