Last week you were late to work because you couldn’t find your keys, and yesterday you forgot the name of a guy you’ve known for years. Is your memory getting worse, or are you just paranoid? Are these kinds of “brain farts” normal, or are they a sign of something serious?

If you’re worried that you’re not as sharp as you used to be, or if you simply want to measure your mental prowess, you may want to give cognitive testing a try. These tests are designed to measure intelligence, memory, problem solving skills, and more, and they can be useful for determining where you stand in terms of brain health.

 

What is cognitive testing?

The term “cognitive testing” may bring to mind IQ tests, but cognition actually encompasses much more than just intelligence. It’s a combination of many different brain processes, including:

  • Thinking
  • Memory
  • Language
  • Ability to learn new things
  • Judgment

Cognitive tests are meant to measure these various brain processes in order to check for impairment. They can also be used to determine a mental baseline, an overview of your cognitive health that may help detect decline.

While there are a ton of different cognitive tests out there, most of them involve answering questions and/or performing tasks. Cognitive tests don’t typically require any advanced preparation, and they don’t pose any health risks.

 

What causes cognitive impairment?

Our brains age along with our bodies, so a certain amount of decline is to be expected. And we all know that conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and dementia negatively affect cognition. But there are actually a number of other, less obvious causes of cognitive impairment, including:

  • Thyroid disease
  • Nutrient deficiencies (something I write about here)
  • Medication side effects

Not only can cognitive testing help you spot signs of decline, it may also lead to the discovery of an underlying (and potentially treatable) health condition that’s contributing to the decline.

 

Who should try it?

It’s probably not surprising that the Alzheimer’s Association recommends routine cognitive assessment for people having memory problems, but other “cognitive complaints” can also be red flags that merit a closer look. These include:

  • Change in personality
  • Depression
  • Inexplicable worsening of chronic disease
  • Balance issues/falls

Early detection of Alzheimer’s and other cognitive conditions is key to effectively treating them, so don’t hesitate to talk to your doctor if you’re experiencing any of the above symptoms.

Even if you’re not concerned about mental decline, cognitive testing can be an excellent way to gain insight into your own mind. There are several free online tests that are designed to measure various aspects of how your brain works and your character in general.

One of these, the Wonderlic Test, consists of 50 questions devised to measure overall intelligence and is approved by the American Psychological Association for employee testing. It’s also used by the National Football League as part of the player evaluation process. Click here to take the Wonderlic Test and see how your scores measure up to those of NFL players like Eli Manning, Tony Romo, and Tom Brady.

Another test called the cognitive reflection test was created to measure people’s ability to consider their own cognition. In this test, questions are weighted to suggest easy but incorrect answers to determine whether you’re able to put in the mental work necessary to make the right choice. Interestingly, scientists have found a link between low scores on the cognitive reflection test and an inability to identify “fake news” as fake.

Whether you’re experiencing troubling symptoms or simply want a better understanding of how your mind works, cognitive testing can be a useful tool for taking control of your own health. Many people say they’d have an easier time accepting physical deterioration than mental decline, so having an idea of where you stand, cognitively speaking, may help you detect potential problems before they become serious.

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Myles Spar, MD, MPH is the Chief Medical Officer of Vault Health, a national medical practice specializing in care for men, and Is board certified in Internal Medicine and in Integrative Medicine. As a clinician, teacher and researcher on faculty of two major medical centers, he has led the charge for a more proactive, holistic and personalized approach to care that focuses on cutting edge technology and preventative care. Dr. Spar has traveled with the NBA, presented a TEDx Talk, appeared on Dr. Oz, and been featured in publications such as the Men’s Journal and the Los Angeles Times.