Can a DIY Test Reveal Signs of Alzheimer's?

Medically Reviewed by Neil Lava, MD on March 30, 2016
2 min read

In the months after her husband died unexpectedly, Liz Arledge found it hard to focus and mingle with others. Was it a natural part of grieving, she wondered, or signs of something else? Her younger brother had dementia, and her mother had lived for 12 years with Alzheimer's. Was she following in their footsteps?

"'I've got to know where I stand,'" Arledge says she thought to herself. "I had to know: 'Am I going to turn into my mother?'"

For an answer, Arledge, who lives in Circleville, OH, took an at-home Alzheimer's test called the Self-Administered Gerocognitive Exam -- or SAGE, for short. It was designed by researchers at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and it checks for memory or thinking problems that could be early signs of the disease.

Why would want to learn you've got it?

"When the disease is caught early, existing treatments are much more effective," says Douglas Scharre, MD, director of the division of cognitive neurology at Wexner Medical Center.

You don't need any fancy equipment. Just pen, paper, and access to a computer so you can download the questions. It takes 15 minutes to finish.

Some sample questions you might see on the test:

  • How many nickels are in 60 cents?
  • You are buying $13.45 of groceries. How much change would you receive back from a $20 bill?
  • Write down the names of 12 different animals.
  • Draw a large face of a clock and place in the numbers.Position the hands for 10 minutes after 11 o'clock. On your clock, label "L" for the long hand and "S" for the short hand.

When you're done, take your answer sheet to your doctor so they can score it and talk to you about the results. Depending on your score, they may order follow-up tests or simply keep it on file so they can see if there are any changes down the road.

In a word: no.

A 2015 study looked at 16 online Alzheimer's tests to see how scientific, reliable, and ethical they were. The researchers rated 75% of them as "poor" or "very poor."

How accurate is the SAGE exam? According to Scharre, it points out about 79% of people with mild cognitive impairment -- a decline in memory and thinking skills that sometimes leads to Alzheimer's. "So it's not a perfect test," he says. "But it gets the conversation going."

For Arledge, it brought peace of mind. She downloaded five copies of the SAGE test, and she and four family members took it together. After they finished, they didn't take the results to their doctors but instead reviewed each other's answers.

Having watched her mother and brother do poorly on similar tests, she knew she'd done well on it. "Because of my family history, I thought I was losing it," she says. "Taking the test set my mind at ease."