Dementia guide

Tests for diagnosing dementia

A range of tests and diagnostic procedures is needed to diagnose dementia, but there are several that are fairly commonly used to diagnose dementia.

These tests for dementia are mainly tests of mental abilities, blood tests and brain scans.

Tests of mental abilities to diagnose dementia

People with symptoms of dementia are often given questionnaires to help test their mental abilities, to see how severe any memory problems may be. One widely used test is the mini mental state examination (MMSE).

The MMSE assesses a number of different mental abilities, including:

  • short- and long-term memory
  • attention span
  • concentration
  • language and communication skills
  • ability to plan
  • ability to understand instructions

The MMSE is a series of exercises, each carrying a score with a maximum of 30 points. These exercises include:

  • memorising a short list of objects and then repeating the list
  • writing a short sentence that is grammatically correct, such as "the dog sat on the floor"
  • correctly answering time-orientation questions, such as identifying the day of the week, the date or the year

The MMSE is not a test to diagnose dementia. However, it is useful for assessing the level of mental impairment that a person with dementia may have.

Test scores may be influenced by a person's level of education. For example, someone who cannot read or write very well may have a lower score, but they may not have dementia. Similarly, someone with a higher level of education may achieve a higher score, but still have dementia.

Blood tests for dementia

A person with suspected dementia may have blood tests to check their overall level of health. These blood tests can also rule out other conditions that may be responsible for their symptoms, such as thyroid hormones and vitamin B12 levels.

Read more about blood tests.

Dementia brain scans

Brain scans are often used for diagnosing dementia once other simpler tests have ruled out other problems. They are needed to check for evidence of other possible problems that could explain a person's symptoms, such as a major stroke or a brain tumour.

A computerised tomography (CT) scan can be used to check for signs of stroke or a brain tumour. However, unlike an MRI scan, a CT scan cannot provide detailed information about the structure of the brain.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends using a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan to help confirm a diagnosis of dementia.

An MRI scan can provide detailed information about the blood vessel damage that occurs in vascular dementia, plus any shrinking of the brain. In frontotemporal dementia, the frontal and temporal lobes are mainly affected by shrinking.

Other scans and procedures to diagnose dementia

Other types of scan, such as a single photon-emission computed tomography (SPECT) scan or a positron emission tomography (PET) scan, may be recommended if the result of your CT or MRI scan is uncertain. These scans look at how the brain functions and can pick up abnormalities with the blood flow in the brain.

In some cases, an electroencephalogram (EEG) may be taken to record the brain's electrical signals (brain activity).

Page last reviewed: 09/07/2015

Next review due: 09/07/2017


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