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Mental status tests are done to test an individual’s cognitive function. The tests can be given by a number of different healthcare providers, including physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and nurses. A psychologist is required to conduct more complex testing when there are questions about specific neurocognitive disorders.
Mental status tests will examine your appearance, orientation, attention span, memory, language skills, and judgment skills. Mental status testing may also be referred to as mental status examination or neurocognitive testing.
Mental status testing can be done to help diagnose mental illnesses or conditions affecting the brain. Mental status testing can help diagnose:
The main type of mental status test used is the mini-mental state examination (MMSE), also known as the Folstein Mini Mental State Exam. In this test, the examiner will observe your appearance, orientation, attention span, memory, language skills, and judgment skills.
Your examiner will look to see if you look your age. They’ll also look for any physical features that are associated with certain conditions, such as the almond-shaped eyes associated with Down syndrome. Your examiner will look to see if you’re well-groomed. They’ll look to see if you’re dressed appropriately for the situation and the weather.
Your examiner will look for cues to see how comfortable you are in social situations. They’ll observe your body language. Your examiner will look for movements that are characteristic of certain conditions, such as excessive movement or muscle contractions. They’ll observe how you make eye contact, for instance they will notice whether you stare intensely or avoid eye contact altogether.
Your orientation to time, place, and person will be tested. Abnormal orientation may be indicative of alcohol use, use of certain drugs, head trauma, nutritional deficiencies, or neurocognitive impairment.
To test your orientation, your examiner will ask you questions. They may ask you your name and age. You’ll also be asked about your job, as well as where you live. You may also be asked where you are, what today’s date is, and what the current season is.
Your attention span will be tested so your examiner can determine if you’re able to finish your thoughts, if you’re able to solve problems, and if you’re easily distracted. An abnormal attention span can indicate attention deficit disorder (ADD), as well as a wide range of other difficulties.
Your examiner may ask you to count backward from a certain number or spell a short word both forward and backward. You may also be asked to follow spoken instructions.
Both your recent and long-term memory will be tested. A loss of recent memory usually indicates a medical problem, whereas a loss of long-term memory can indicate other problems. Your examiner will ask you about current events such as who the president is. They may also ask you about recent events in your life such as a recent trip.
To test your memory, your examiner will say three words to you. You’ll be asked to repeat these words after a few minutes. Your examiner will also test your long-term memory by asking you questions about your childhood and schooling.
The examiner will test to see how you use language. For instance, do you use words appropriately, correctly name objects, have "word finding" difficulties or other difficulties with the common use of language. If the person being tested has never been able to read or write, it’s important to let the examiner know that. Abnormal language results may indicate a wide range of mental health issues.
For language testing, you may be asked to write a complete sentence or follow a written direction. Your examiner will also ask you to name certain common items in the room, such as a pen or table. They may also ask you to name as many words as you can that start with a certain letter or fit into a specific category, such as types of food or types of animals.
Judgment testing assesses your ability to solve problems and your ability to make acceptable decisions. Abnormal judgment results may indicate schizophrenia, intellectual disability, or neurocognitive impairment.
You may be asked to draw a clock that indicates a certain time. You may also be asked what you would do in several different situations that you might encounter in daily life. For example, you may be asked what you would do if you were in a store and wanted to get something, or what you would do if you found somebody’s wallet on the ground.
Educational level and fluency in English can influence your score on the MMSE. It’s important to let the examiner know if English isn’t your primary language. Also, give your examiner a description of your educational history, for example, whether you graduated from college or if you’re a high school graduate.
Your healthcare provider will discuss your results with you and/or your spouse or family member. If you were given the test after an injury, your health care provider will probably repeat the test later to gauge your progress.
Written by: Janelle Martel
Medically reviewed on: Jan 15, 2016: Timothy J. Legg, PhD, PMHNP-BC
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