What Is a Cognitive Test?

Medically Reviewed by Christopher Melinosky, MD on October 23, 2023
3 min read

Cognition can be generally defined as the state or processes of being able to perceive and judge reality effectively. Cognitive tests are designed to determine whether you may have any issues with cognition, also known as cognitive impairment. These tests don't diagnose cognitive problems. Instead, they help your provider determine if you need to take more tests or if there are any cognitive issues you need to address.

Older people will routinely receive cognitive tests during wellness checkups because they're more at risk for conditions that cause cognitive impairments. Early detection can be vital in treating or slowing down many of the causal conditions, so older adults should get tested regularly. This is especially true for those with dementia and Alzheimer’s.

People of all ages can receive cognitive testing though, and not all symptoms and conditions that lead to cognitive impairment are caused by age.

You might seek out cognitive testing if you experience any of the following symptoms: 

  • Not remembering appointments or social events
  • Frequently misplacing objects in your house
  • Repeating questions
  • Difficulty understanding or remembering movies or TV shows
  • Having a hard time understanding pieces of information told to you
  • Needing to make lists 
  • Forgetting significant parts of your past 
  • Getting lost often 
  • Not remembering words
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety

If you notice any of these symptoms or if people in your life tell you that you exhibit them, you should let your doctor know. These are the key symptoms of cognitive impairment. 

Cognitive tests show whether you have cognitive impairment or not. Cognitive impairment can be caused by many things, including: 

Cognitive testing doesn't show what condition you have that could be causing cognitive impairment or even how severe your cognitive impairment could be. Instead, it indicates whether or not you need more testing to better understand what could be causing any cognitive impairment that you're experiencing. 

Often, providers will conduct cognitive testing to find out if you have something called mild cognitive impairment or MCI

Mild cognitive impairment describes the phase between the normal aging process and the beginning of dementia. Changes to your memory and functioning characterize it, but it's not life-altering. If you're diagnosed with this, your doctor will need to monitor your cognitive state more to ensure it's not declining any further.

There are many different cognitive tests available. Your provider will pick the most relevant to you, depending on your situation. All of the cognitive tests involve answering questions or performing tasks. They center around testing your memory, thinking processes, language, and your ability to identify things. 

The most common cognitive tests are:

  • Montreal cognitive assessment (MoCA). This short test lasts around 15 minutes. It involves memorizing a short list, categorizing images in pictures, and copying shapes. This test is the best for finding mild cognitive impairment.
  • Mini-mental state exam (MMSE). The MMSE lasts around 10 minutes. During an MMSE, you will say the date, count backward, and identify objects in the room. This is the best test to find more serious issues.
  • Mini-Cog. The shortest and easiest of all the tests, the Mini-Cog involves memorizing and recounting a short list of objects and making a drawing. It's pretty standard because of how simple it is to perform.

You don’t need to prepare for any of the cognitive tests, and there are no risks to taking them. If you’d like, you can always bring a friend or relative with you to a cognitive test.

If your test results indicate that you are not at a standard level of cognitive functioning, you likely have a condition that affects your memory or your brain. If that happens, your provider will need to do more testing to pin down that condition. 

Unfortunately, many of the conditions that cause cognitive impairment are not treatable, but some conditions are treatable and will go away. These treatable conditions include:

Depending on your results, your doctor will most likely refer you to another specialist who will further help you understand what may be causing your cognitive impairment. Your doctor may also walk you through the resources available to you, like rehabilitation services, adult day programs, and support groups.