National Memory Screening Day is November 13: Five Things You Should Know

Worried about last week when you forgot your hair appointment? Concerned about your spouse’s recent forgetfulness? National Memory Screening Day may be something you want to consider.

The 10th annual National Memory Screening Day will occur on Tuesday, November 13, 2012. Initiated by the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America (AFA), the event coordinates community sites across the country to provide free, confidential memory screenings and educational materials to anyone worried about memory problems or who is interested in learning more about cognitive disorders.

I commend the AFA for spearheading National Memory Screening Day because it meets a growing need for the early identification of possible memory impairment; it also addresses the urgency for public outreach about the benefits of seeking help for cognitive symptoms. Yet I think it’s important to clarify what memory screening are and what they are not. Caregivers and their loved ones need to make informed decisions about whether to participate in memory screenings and what to do with the results.

© National Institute of Mental Health
© National Institute of Mental Health

Here are five things you should know about memory screenings:

Memory screenings cannot be used to diagnose dementia. Memory screenings are brief evaluations that cannot and should not ever be used to make a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease or any other type of dementia. Memory screenings can only point to whether further evaluation is needed based on the identification of certain signs of potential impairment.

Memory screenings are not the same as a diagnostic workup. This follows the same logic as above, but I feel it’s important to drive home the point that spending 15 minutes at a memory screening site is not the same as undergoing a comprehensive workup in a physician’s office or diagnostic clinic that includes a medical history, complete physical exam, mood evaluation, imaging procedures (such as an MRI), and appropriate laboratory tests. In contrast, memory screenings entail a series of questions and activities that can detect possible impairments in memory and thinking, but nothing more.

Memory screenings can be compared over time, with caution. You may choose to have a memory screening even though you're not experiencing any memory problems in order to establish a baseline level of functioning. This result can then be compared to future memory screenings in order to detect potential memory problems. If you like this idea, be sure to have all of your memory screenings performed at the same location, such as your primary care physician's office. It's risky to compare screening results from different offices because of the lack of standardization among screenings.

Memory screenings should follow ethical guidelines. Memory screenings should be conducted in quiet, confidential areas, not in an open booth in the middle of a health fair. Only you and the screener should be present. You should be informed that the screening results will not be released to a third party unless you provide consent. Also, the screener should discuss the results with you and provide you with follow-up resources. For instance, if further evaluation is suggested, the screener should provide you with educational literature and referrals to local physicians who have expertise in cognitive disorders.

Memory screenings should be conducted by qualified professionals. This includes psychologists, social workers, mental health counselors, nurse practitioners, and physicians. Primary care settings are common, reliable places to receive memory screenings from people with suitable training. If you attend a memory screening at a health fair or similar public event, be sure to ask about the credentials of the screener. Volunteers who are not medically trained may be well-meaning, but they should not perform memory screenings.

If you decide to pursue a memory screening, you can find one here.

I am not going to tell you whether to seek a memory screening – I believe that is a personal choice for each of us to make. But I do want that choice to be well-informed, so please heed these five tips when you consider memory screening options for you and your loved one.

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