Detecting early warning signs of dementia can be difficult, but there are several types of cognitive screenings -- quick, simple tests of memory and thinking skills -- that can help a doctor decide if it's time to recommend a more in-depth exam.
One example: Tell someone three random words. Then time how quickly the person can draw a clock face, with the hands pointing at 11:10. Then ask how many of those original words he or she still remembers after the distraction of the clock task.
The Alzheimer's Association is working with experts around the country to identify which kinds of screening tools work best in the hands of primary-care physicians, says association vice president Beth Kallmyer.
Screenings aside, Kallmyer says one of the most important things a doctor can ask is whether anything in your daily life has changed recently. That's something that an affected person might or might not have noticed, or might be afraid to answer truthfully -- but that consulting a family member might elicit.
"The reality is, this is tricky," she says. "When you have a doctor's appointment that's less than half an hour and may be as short as 15 minutes, these things are really challenging."