When you head to the doctor for your annual physical, do they check your brain health along with your blood pressure and cholesterol? If your doctor overlooks your brain health examination, he or she is not alone. Less than half of the primary care doctors surveyed by the Alzheimer’s Association said they regularly screened patients above age 65 for dementia or cognitive decline.
Doctors and older adults agree screening for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are important, but can encounter roadblocks to the test — doctors are short on time for appointments, and many older adults may not have specific cognitive symptoms when they visit the doctor or know they should even have the assessment.
The Alzheimer’s Association also found doctors are not screening their older patient’s brain health because they’re waiting for the patient to bring their concerns up, which rarely happens thanks patient to fear, stigma around brain health, and a belief that patients would rather not know they have a cognitive disease.
You can check your brain health for free at the Brain Health Registry.
Some doctors feel they will harm a patient by diagnosing a brain health issue, which could lead to the patient developing depression or anxiety. However, researchers found that diagnosing a brain health issue did not increase rates of anxiety or depression.
The brain health test typically takes a few minutes and evaluates your ability to think and solve problems. Your doctor may ask if you know the date, time and where you are or if you can do simple calculations, remember a short list of words or follow instructions.
Your doctor may also ask whomever you bring with you about your cognitive abilities. However, if you have Medicare, a cognitive evaluation is now a required part of your annual wellness visit.
Benefits of a Brain Health Screening
Though it may seem like another thing that could lengthen your doctor’s appointment, brain health screenings have many benefits, including catching dementia or Alzheimer’s disease early.
If you’re diagnosed earlier, you have the opportunity to join clinical trials, which could lead to breakthroughs in treatment, says Keith Fargo, director of scientific programs and outreach at the Alzheimer’s Association.
"The first person who gets a drug that stops their Alzheimer's disease will get that drug in the context of a clinical trial," he said. "And that's only going to happen to someone who knows they have cognitive decline."
Taking Action After a Brain Health Screening
Many older adults diagnosed with a cognitive problem fail to get the care they need because they don’t take action after diagnosis, researchers found. The solution is having physicians and the medical system take a more active role in a patient’s care to ensure they receive proper follow-up care like ensuring they are getting proper nutrition and physical activity and having symptoms monitored.
Despite the benefit of brain health screenings, many medical professionals feel they won’t become routine until there is an effective treatment for Alzheimer’s.