MMSE test example

Practice with the test

(Editor’s Note: I recently came across an excellent book and resource, The Alzheimer’s Action Plan: The Experts’ Guide to the Best Diagnosis and Treatment for Memory Problems, recently released in paperback. Dr. Murali Doraiswamy, one of the authors and leading Alzheimer’s expert, kindly helped us create a 2-part article series to share with SharpBrains readers advice on a very important question, “How can we help the public at large to distinguish Alzheimer’s Disease from normal aging — so that an interest in early identification doesn’t translate into unneeded worries?” What follows is an excerpt from the book, pages 72-78, discussing the Pros and Cons of the most common assessments).

While no single test (other than a brain biopsy, which is a very invasive and risky procedure) can conclusively prove that a person has Alzheimer’s, many tests can give us a good idea. A list of all the tests that help us assess memory and thinking problems appears at the end of this chapter. Meanwhile, let’s take a good look at the whys and hows of a thorough memory assessment.


To understand why getting tested (and retested as symptoms change and the disease progresses) is important, check out the experience of Katherine, who went to the doctor complaining of a memory slowdown. She took five of the most important neuropsychological tests, which assess brain function without actually physically looking at the brain. Then she underwent brain scans, a cardiovascular workup, and blood tests to see what else was going on that might be undermining her mental function.


Ignorance can be costly, yet so is information. At the first visit, ask the doctor to spell out which tests he or she wants to run, then check that your insurance covers those tests and whether there are any conditions that are not covered. At the end of this chapter you will find the approximate costs of different tests.

Was it all worth it? Well, if she had stopped at just the two most common tests, she could have walked away with a very inaccurate diagnosis.

First, the doctor wanted to know if she had a family history of Alzheimer’s and, if so, at what age the relative developed Alzheimer’s. The doctor also needed to know her age. That’s not surprising—seems the older you get, the more people ask. But for an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, age really matters, because after age sixtyfive the risk of Alzheimer’s doubles every five years, and below age fifty the disease is relatively rare.Your education level is important, too. People who didn’t complete high school have a greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s than people with a higher level of education. Finally, women are more likely to get Alzheimer’s than men.

Katherine was seventy-two, a college grad, and had no family history that she knew of.Her parents both died before their seventy-fifth birthdays, but they certainly didn’t have early-onset Alzheimer’s.


The test that all doctors should give at the first memory assessment, which Katherine’s doctor did, and at every follow-up visit is the Mini-Mental State Exam (MMSE), a short but very useful test that assesses a lot of different abilities.

What the MMSE Asks and Why

  • To demonstrate orientation:The patient tries to answer, “What is today’s date?” and “What county are we in?”
  • To demonstrate memory skills: The patient tries to repeat the names of three objects immediately and again after five minutes.
  • To demonstrate concentration: The patient tries to count backward or to spell backward.
  • To demonstrate language abilities: The patient tries to name objects in the room, repeat a tongue twister, or follow simple directions such as to take, fold, and put a piece of paper on the desk.
  • To demonstrate motor skills: The patient tries to copy a picture that includes intersecting shapes.

What the MMSE Does

  • Serves as a quick screen for dementia of any kind
  • Provides a general measure of brain function
  • Helps determine if the patient is in the early, middle, or late stage of Alzheimer’s
  • Monitors changes in mental functioning over time, including the effects of treatment
  • Provides a common language. Everyone from a general practitioner to a memory specialist understands the test results, so they serve as a common language spoken across different specialties.

What the MMSE Doesn’t Do

The MMSE doesn’t do subtle. It was developed thirty years ago to help doctors screen hospital patients for problems with their mental functioning. Now people are driving themselves to the doctor for a memory test, and the MMSE is not sensitive enough to pick up on subtle problems in thinking and memory. Nor does it probe any one aspect of mental functioning in depth or distinguish among memory disorders.

Some individuals with a very high IQ or those who are really good test takers appear merely “normal” on the MMSE when in fact they have an Alzheimer’s-induced memory slowdown. Doctors should, though not all do, consider IQ, gender, occupation, education level, and an individual’s age when scoring the MMSE. An assessment may not include a formal IQ test, but the doctor should find out about the person’s personality, capabilities, and occupation prior to developing memory problems, because Alzheimer’s is about a decline or change in memory and thinking. For example, the MMSE score of 26 is normal for a man in his early sixties who has an eighth-grade education, but it would be below normal if he had gone to college. (A chart showing what MMSE score is normal for a person’s age and education is available at psych/mmse.asp.)

Katherine did okay on her MMSE. She scored a respectable 26 out of a possible 30. No big red flag there for most doctors, who don’t worry until they see a total score below 24. But the score actually concerned her doctor, who happened to know that for her years of education and age, normal for Katherine would be closer to a 28.

Doctors sometimes neglect to home in on how the test taker did on each set of questions. For example, forgetting today’s date is less important than missing other assessment questions. Before leaving the doctor’s office, find out your (or your relative’s) total MMSE score and what items were missed.

Katherine ended up taking the MMSE many times over the years. Her scores declined slowly because, as the tests revealed, she had MCI (mild cognitive impairment). But after three years, she, too, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and her decline accelerated.

It’s Time . . .

Probably the second most popular test to screen for dementia is the clock-drawing test, which requires patients to draw a clock showing a specific time. The test is a good way to screen for overall mental abilities, and it can reveal problems that the patient has been able to hide during day-to-day activities. Katherine did great on the test, which was lucky for her daughter, whose own little girl was just mastering the skill of telling time. It’s upsetting for family members to see a parent or spouse fail at a task most kids master in grade school.

Most general practitioners consider talking with the patient, ordering some blood tests and a brain scan, and giving the MMSE and clock-drawing test sufficient for diagnosing dementia. It might be sufficient for someone with obvious signs of Alzheimer’s. But it could miss the early-stage Alzheimer’s or MCI. Fortunately for Katherine and her family, her doctor did more.


A diagnosis of Alzheimer’s requires being impaired in memory and one other mental function, such as language or attention. Language problems usually indicate that Alzheimer’s is somewhat progressed or that the problem is another type of dementia that strikes the language centers of the brain first.

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