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Testing your cognition online: What's the harm?

A Google search of your symptoms brings you to an online quiz that promises to assess if you have a cognitive impairment, or to determine your risk for dementia. “What’s the harm?” you might think as you click through the questions, which can range from a checklist of symptoms to tests of your memory and questions about your personal risk factors.

According to research led by Dr. Julie Robillard, Assistant Professor of Neurology at UBC and researcher at the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health, these tests are potentially harmful, as many are misleading or unethical.

In Dr. Robillard’s study, two panels of experts – including geriatricians, neuropsychologists, ethicists, and specialists in human-computer interaction – rated 16 online tests based on specific criteria around scientific validity, privacy, consent and conflict of interest, among others. They found that many of the tests scored poorly or very poorly according to ethical standards.

“Our results have led us to question the usefulness and the benefits of these tests,” says Dr. Robillard.

So what should you consider when evaluating an online cognition test?

At this point, Dr. Robillard advises that it may be difficult to identify a high quality online cognition test since so many are available online, and she recommends speaking with your physician before using one of these self-assessments.

“However, it’s perfectly legitimate to search for information about dementia online, and many websites offer quality information that does not involve a cognitive test, such as the website of the Alzheimer Society of Canada,” says Dr. Robillard.

When browsing for online health information, Dr. Robillard recommends looking for indicators of credibility:

  • Are the author credentials listed?
  • Does it cite scientific sources?
  • Is the medical advice current?

“If the website appears to be selling a product, that’s often a red flag,” says Dr. Robillard.

So what’s the best way to assess your risk for cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s disease? Talk to your doctor. And if you want to learn to seek out better information online, join Dr. Robillard for a discussion of online resources for patients and families at UBC’s 2015 Alzheimer Update on January 31, 2015.