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Get a true Alzheimer’s risk assessment

There are memory tests all over the Internet, but they’re notoriously poor at evaluating your memory and mental skills. If you’re genuinely concerned about memory lapses and fear they might point to Alzheimer’s disease, talk to a professional.

“If people are that worried, they really should make an appointment with a doctor,” said Dorene Rentz, clinical neuropsychologist and co-director of the Center for Alzheimer Research and Treatment at Harvard Medical School.

EXPERTS GIVE ONLINE TESTS AN F

Researchers based at the National Core for Neuroethics at the University of British Columbia evaluated 16 online tests. Two independent panels of experts recruited for the study said that the tests examined fall short in several important ways:

• Most of the sites are “poor” or “very poor” in their ability to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease based on current scientific understanding.

• The tests are often unreliable, which means that taking them on different days could lead to different results. This means that day-to-day ups and downs in fatigue or nervousness could throw off the test results.

• The tests do not clearly explain privacy policies, including how personal information in the test process could be used. Some websites ask for dates of birth, credit card numbers, or other sensitive information. Companies sometimes use the tests to hawk ineffective memory supplements and other products.

POTENTIAL HARMS

The tests may seem like harmless fun, but they may not be.

“What we saw was definitely very concerning,” said Julie Robillard, the lead researcher on the study. “These tests expose a vulnerable population to predatory marketing strategies.”

Another potential downside is the anxiety a person could suffer after test results indicate a memory impairment that may actually have nothing to do with dementia.

“There are many reasons why people can have memory problems,” Rentz said. “You might just not be sleeping well or have something else that’s correctable.”

On the other hand, an “all clear” test result may discourage a person from following up on signs of a real memory impairment.

“The test could give you a false negative, saying you’re perfectly fine when actually you should worry,” Rentz said. “You’re not truly going to understand what’s going on just by taking a test like that.”

Robillard and her colleagues plan additional research to see if taking online Alzheimer’s tests leads to poorer health or other problems.

“It could have potential benefits down the road, but there are definitely some potential harms that need to be evaluated,” Robillard said.

ESTABLISH A BASELINE

If you have concerns about your memory, talk to your doctor. Diagnosing dementia requires a range of tests and an expert to interpret and explain the results properly.

If your doctor refers you for comprehensive memory testing, be prepared for more than a simple check-box quiz. The process can take the better part of a day and may be broken into two visits. But you will get more out of it than just peace of mind.

“We believe in the value of early detection,” said Dean Hartley, director of science initiatives at the Alzheimer’s Association in Chicago. “One thing that’s important is getting a baseline assessment.”

Medicare now covers an Annual Wellness Visit, at which you and your doctor can discuss any concerns about your mental skills. This provides a reference point to understand any changes you may experience.