Researchers have developed an self-administered test that can help doctors spot early symptoms of cognitive issues in their patients, like Alzheimer’s disease.

Best of all, the test is cheap, self-administered, and can be taken virtually anywhere.

“What we found was that this self-administered test correlated very well with more detailed cognitive testing,” said Dr. Douglas Scharre, who developed the test with his team at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “The difference is, this approach simply requires a pen, paper and about 10 minutes of a patient’s time,” he said.

While the test cannot definitely diagnose problems like Alzheimer's disease, it does allow doctors to screen for any cognitive deficits and to obtain baseline cognitive functioning that could be monitored over time.

“We can give them the test periodically and the moment we notice any changes in their cognitive abilities, we can intervene much more rapidly,” said Scharre.

Doctors say early intervention is the key to good treatment outcomes.

Unfortunately patients with Alzheimer’s disease, for example, often wait 3-4 years after their symptoms first appear to seek treatment.

“Hopefully, this test will help change those situations,” said Scharre.

The Self-Administered Gerocognitive Examination , called a SAGE test, which takes less than 15 minutes to complete, is a reliable tool for evaluating cognitive abilities.

Memory disorder researchers visited 45 community events where they asked people to take a simple, self-administered test to screen for early cognitive loss or dementia.

Of the 1,047 people who took the simple pen-and-paper test, 28 percent were identified with cognitive impairment, said Dr. Scharre, who developed the test with his team at Ohio State.

The SAGE test can also be taken at home by patients, who can then share the results with their physicians to help spot early symptoms of cognitive issues such as early dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, said Scharre, who is director of cognitive neurology and heads the Memory Disorders Research Center at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center.

Often, physicians may not recognize subtle cognitive deficits during routine office visits, he said.

“What we found was that this SAGE self-administered test correlated very well with detailed cognitive testing,” Scharre said. “If we catch this cognitive change really early then we can start potential treatments much earlier than we did without having this test.”

While the test does not diagnose problems like Alzheimer’s, it does allow doctors to get a baseline of cognitive function in their patients, so they can follow them for these problems over time.

“We can give them the test periodically and, the moment we notice any changes in their cognitive abilities, we can intervene much more rapidly,” Scharre said.

The SAGE test could also provide health care providers and caregivers an earlier indication of life-changing events that could lie ahead.

Earlier research by Scharre found that four out of five people (80 percent) with mild thinking and memory (cognitive) issues will be detected by this test, and 95 percent of people without issues will have normal SAGE scores.

In this study, researchers found that SAGE’s self-administered feature, pen and paper format, and four equivalent interchangeable forms allows it to be given in almost any setting, doesn’t require any staff time to administer or to set up a computer, and makes it practical to rapidly screen large numbers of individuals in the community at the same time.

Study participants were ages 50 or older who had been recruited from a wide variety of community locations and events, including senior centers, health fairs, educational talks to lay public, independent and assisted living facilities, and free memory screens through newspaper advertisement. The study excluded individuals who indicated that they had taken SAGE previously.

Some 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease, and those numbers are expected to almost triple by 2050.

An additional 3 percent to 22 percent of those over 60 years of age are thought to currently meet criteria for Mild Cognitive Impairment as well, Scharre said.

“Hopefully, this test will help change those situations,” Scharre said. “We are finding better treatments, and we know that patients do much better than if they start the treatments sooner than later.”