The ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ Alzheimer’s Test: Could You Pass It?

By Sharon Tanenbaum | Medically reviewed by Ed Zimney Characters from the hit show are testing patient memory as part of an Alzheimer’s disease clinical trial — but should you worry if the questions trip you up?

What did you do for Thanksgiving last year? Where did you go on your honeymoon? Starting at 100, count backward by seven. Remember the following three-word sequence: truck, cabin, spoon.

These are among the series of questions Derek Shepherd and Meredith Grey are asking of Alzheimer’s disease patients to determine whether they’re qualified for entry into a clinical trial on this season’s Grey’s Anatomy.

But if you’re sitting on the couch five minutes later struggling to remember the word “cabin,” should you worry about your own brain health? And just how accurate is such a test at gauging Alzheimer’s disease risk? Everyday Health asked leading memory experts for answers.

What the Grey’s Memory Tests Means

Although the test used on the TV show is not identified by name, some of the questions, like the three-word memory sequence and counting back directive, are included in the Folstein Mini Mental State Examination (MMSE), a 30-point questionnaire introduced in 1975.

“It’s the most commonly used cognitive evaluation for memory loss,” says Cynthia Green, PhD, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. “It’s a screening test, so it doesn’t delve deeply into someone’s mental functioning across different areas of intellectual performance.” (Other types of MMSE questions include drawing certain pictures and performing a three-step command, such as “take a piece of paper, fold it in half, and place it on the floor.”)

Keep in mind that the questions used by Derek and Meredith in their fictional version of the test are just a sampling of the total number of questions that would be used in a real test. Otherwise the limited number of answers wouldn’t tell clinicians much. The questions portrayed on TV are such a small snippet that the results are not that significant for the average person, says Dr. Green. And the question of whether a patient can remember where she spent her honeymoon isn’t likely to be on a real test: “That’s more of a remote memory, which is usually retained until later stages of the disease,” Green notes.

Senior Moments vs. Real Red Flags

So why can’t you remember the above word sequence or where you parked the car at the supermarket? You probably just weren’t paying attention, or you were multitasking or just plain distracted. Such everyday “senior moments” aren’t enough to raise a red flag for dementia, says Green.

 “Everybody forgets things once in a while. It’s important to forget, otherwise think how awfully full your brain would be. You wouldn’t be able to sleep at night,” says Laurel Coleman, MD, a geriatric physician in Augusta, Maine, and national board member of the Alzheimer’s Association.

What is concerning, according to Green: “When a change in memory lasts for four to six months, impairs your ability to function independently at work or at home, and if your family and friends notice a change in your abilities or behavior.” If you or a loved one experience any of these symptoms of possible dementia, you should talk to your doctor and get evaluated.

Even then, keep in mind that memory loss doesn’t automatically mean you have Alzheimer’s, which counts language problems, disorientation, and face-recognition issues among its other symptoms. “Memory loss can be a symptom of at least 75 different medical conditions,” says Green, including a vitamin B12 deficiency, thyroid disorders, emotional distress, depression, and side effects from medication.

Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, accounting for about 70 percent of cases in people age 71 and older. But it strikes only five percent of people between 65 and 74. The younger you are, the more likely a memory-related issue is something other than Alzheimer’s.

“We worry so much about memory loss because it’s something we’re afraid of,” says Green. “But since there are so many different things that can cause it and many of those conditions are reversible, it’s important to seek evaluation, and to do it sooner rather than later.”

The Role of Memory Tests in Real-Life Alzheimer’s Studies

Diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease is challenging, since the only way to definitively determine the presence of disease is by looking at brain cells after someone has died. Instead, doctors evaluate the likelihood of Alzheimer’s with a variety of tests that also seek to rule out other possible causes of dementia.

These can include a thorough medical history, complete physical examination, lab tests of blood, urine, and sometimes spinal fluid, and brain scans, in addition to cognitive testing. Doctors at specialized Alzheimer’s treatment centers can diagnose the disease with 90 percent accuracy, according to the National Institute on Aging. Read more about how Alzheimer’s is diagnosed here.

During the cognitive tests, clinicians check on a wide range of brain functions — assessing not just memory— but a patient’s calculation ability, attention, insight, judgment, and how they prioritize things, says Dr. Coleman. “We examine a variety of things because people think in so many different ways.”

Clinical Trials for Alzheimer’s Disease

The fictional Grey’s Anatomy clinical trial highlights the importance of real-life research: According to the Alzheimer’s Association, there currently are more than 100 Alzheimer’s clinical trials that need 50,000 volunteers — with and without the disease — to participate. Such trials are studying new ways to detect, treat, and prevent Alzheimer’s and related types of dementia.

Although researchers can’t offer regular mental state exams by Dr. McDreamy, if you or a loved one is coping with an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, consider finding a study that may be right for you through the Alzheimer’s Association Trial Match program or on Research shows that people involved in studies tend to do somewhat better than people at a similar stage of Alzheimer’s who are not enrolled in trials, the association says.

Keep Falls Out of your Autumn


Quote of the Month

It’s far more important to understand than it is to be understood. To understand is a selfless act.

Best Exercise to Burn Fat

The best exercise to burn fat is to take your hands and place them palms first against the side of the table and push back. It’s all about portion size and burning more calories than  you consume. Keep moving your body, eat less sugar, and live in moderation. Stretching and foam rolling are 2 of the most important exercises you can do. Strength training is great for regulating blood sugar, weight loss, bone strengthening and balance. Yoga is great for balance, stretching and overall well being. It’s a choice. Be healthy and make healthier choices. Exercise is a must have whether you like it or not. It’s necessary for living well. Best to you on your journey to great health.

Memorial Day

To all who served and are serving in our military, thank you.

Taking Life for Granted

It’s so easy to take the little things in life for granted when you’re living with health benefits, money in the bank, a great job and smoothly sailing through life. However, when tough times come, and they do for each of us, we become a little more humbled and grateful about small things.

It’s been over a year since I’ve had a full time job with benefits and enough money to pay my bills over the minimum amount. My high credit score survived over the year and for that, I’m grateful. I’ve educated myself over the year with working out, eating well and losing over 25 pounds. I’ve met some really great people and have more friends through this lean time in my life.


Sometimes we need these lean times to make us aware of what’s really important to us and what our true purpose is all about. I’ve learned it’s about helping people be healthier through strengthening muscles, increasing balance and improving flexibility. It’s not just about losing inches and weight, it’s about taking care of our body and mind. This past week, I started a new job and am entering a new chapter in my life. My job is Wellness Director in a retirement community helping people increase their balance, flexibility and strength through exercise classes, lectures about healthy living, and competition through games.

No longer taking things for granted in my life. My purpose is revealed in the work I do and accomplish as a wellness professional. May you find your peace and purpose in life and in all that you do. Be kind to yourself and find the things you are most grateful for in life. Peace.


The Election and Yoga 2016

There is nothing more needful besides prayer always and Yoga during this election season. With all the angst, anger, violence, mud slinging and #hashtags, we need to step back and breathe as Cruz encouraged Trump to do.

It’s great to have our first amendment rights to free speech. Free speech doesn’t exclude respect, good behavior, or include stomping on others free speech when we disagree.

Amendment 1 of the Constitution

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Since it is lawful to have and express free speech exercising our right to peaceably assemble, it is unlawful to cry free speech while behaving unlawful and violently. Racial, class, and socioeconomic tension is at an all time high in this country.

We must exercise peace, lawfulness, respect for those who hold different views, and appreciate the differences in our society. Why the deep resentment in our country? Why the lawlessness? One candidate mentioned it was because the university professors are inciting this behavior.

I have another viewpoint. Respect, lawfulness, kindness, appreciation for differences in our society begins at home not in our universities. Exercising our rights begins at home.

We need to get back to the basics of love, honor and respect and while most don’t hold this next point, we need God first without defiance.

II Chronicles 7:14 “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”




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