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Mental status tests

Contents of this page:

Alternative Names   

Memory; Word comprehension; Orientation; Attention span; Cognitive tests

Definition    Return to top

Mental status tests are used to determine whether a disease or condition is affecting a person's thinking abilities, and whether a person's mental condition is improving or getting worse.

How the Test is Performed    Return to top

The following tests may be performed:


The health care provider will check the person's physical appearance, including:


The health care provider will ask questions that may include:


The provider will test the person's ability to finish a thought, either through conversation, or by asking the person to follow a series of directions.


The provider will ask questions related to recent people, places, and events in the person's life or in the world.


The provider will ask about the person's childhood, school, or historical events that occurred earlier in life.


The provider will point to everyday items in the room and ask the person to name them.


To test the person's judgment and ability to solve a problem or situation, the provider might ask questions such as:

How to Prepare for the Test    Return to top

No preparation is necessary for these tests. All responses should be natural, spontaneous, and honest.

Preparation, especially by a highly intelligent person, could change the results of the test by making it seem that mental function has not declined when it actually has.

How the Test Will Feel    Return to top

There is no physical discomfort.

Normal Results    Return to top

What Abnormal Results Mean    Return to top

Each test can identify different possible problems, as described below.


Typically, orientation to time is first to be lost, followed by orientation to place, then to person. There are many possible causes for disorientation:


People who are unable to complete a thought, or are easily distracted, may have an abnormal attention span. This may have a number of causes, including:


A medical disorder may cause loss of recent memory but keep remote memory intact. Remote memory is lost when damage to the upper part of the brain occurs in diseases such as Alzheimer's disease.

See also: Memory loss


These tests screen for language disorder (aphasia). Some causes of aphasia include:


The ability to decide the right course of action is important to survival in many situations. The following are some causes of impaired judgment:

Risks    Return to top

There are no risks with these tests.

Considerations    Return to top

Some tests that screen for language problems using reading or writing do not account for people who may never have been able to read or write. If you know that the person being tested has never been able to read or write, tell the health care provider in advance.

If your child is having any of these tests performed, it is important to help him or her understand the reasons for the tests.

Update Date: 2/13/2008

Updated by: Luc Jasmin, MD, PhD, Departments of Anatomy & Neurological Surgery, University of California, San Francisco, CA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.

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