The mental status examination is an assessment of current mental capacity through evaluation of general appearance, behavior, any unusual or bizarre beliefs and perceptions (eg, delusions, hallucinations), mood, and all aspects of cognition (eg, attention, orientation, memory).
Examination of mental status is done in anyone with an altered mental status or evolving impairment of cognition whether acute or chronic. Many screening tools are available; the following are particularly useful:
Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MOCA) for general screening because it covers a broad array of cognitive functions
Mini-Mental State Examination when evaluating patients for Alzheimer disease because it focuses on testing memory
Baseline results are recorded, and the examination is repeated yearly and whenever a change in mental status is suspected.
Patients should be told that recording of mental status is routine and that they should not be embarrassed by its being done.
The examination is done in a quiet room, and the examiner should make sure that patients can hear the questions clearly. Patients who do not speak English as their primary language should be questioned in the language they speak fluently.
Mental status examination evaluates different areas of cognitive function. The examiner must first establish that patients are attentive—eg, by assessing their level of attention while the history is taken or by asking them to immediately repeat 3 words. Testing an inattentive patient further is not useful.
The parameters of cognitive function to be tested and examples of how to test them include the following:
Test the 3 parameters of orientation:
Person (What is your name?)
Time (What is today’s date?)
Place (What is the name of this place?)
Ask the patient to recall 3 objects after about 2 to 5 min.
Ask the patient a question about the past, such as “What color suit did you wear at your wedding?” or “What was the make of your first car?”
Use any simple mathematical test. Serial 7s are common: The patient is asked to start with 100 and to subtract 7, then 7 from 93, etc. Alternatively, ask how many nickels are in $1.35.
Ask the patient to name as many objects in a single category, such as articles of clothing or animals, as possible in 1 min.
Attention and concentration
Ask the patient to spell a 5-letter word forward and backward. “World” is commonly used.
Present an object, such as a pen, book, or ruler, and ask the patient to name the object and a part of it.
Start with a 1-step command, such as “Touch your nose with your right hand.” Then test a 3-step command, such as “Take this piece of paper in your right hand. Fold it in half. Put the paper on the floor.”
Ask the patient to write a sentence. The sentence should contain a subject and an object and should make sense. Spelling errors should be ignored.
Ask the patient to draw a house or a clock and mark the clock with a specific time. Or ask the patient to draw 2 intersecting pentagons.
Ask the patient to identify a unifying theme between 3 or 4 objects (eg, all are fruit, all are vehicles of transportation, all are musical instruments). Ask the patient to interpret a moderately challenging proverb, such as “People who live in glass houses should not throw stones.”
Ask the patient about a hypothetical situation requiring good judgment, such as “What would you do if you found a stamped letter on the sidewalk?” Placing it in the mailbox is the correct answer; opening the letter suggests a personality disorder.
Last full review/revision September 2016 by George Newman, MD, PhD