Healthy Outlook: Is your brain due for a checkup?

Medicare beneficiaries’ annual wellness visits cover cognitive assessments

Medicare beneficiaries: Even if you’re taking advantage of the annual wellness visits that Part B covers, you might not be getting all that you can out of it.

A cognitive assessment — included in these annual visits, if you ask your doctor — can help you keep tabs on your brain in five minutes or less.

Despite physicians’ and patients’ awareness of the benefits of early detection, just half of seniors are receiving cognitive assessments, and only 1 in 7 is getting them regularly, according to a special report from the Alzheimer’s Association.

The Medicare annual wellness visit, or AWV, is available to anyone who has been receiving Medicare Part B benefits for at least 12 months and who has not had the initial preventive physical exam — aka the “Welcome to Medicare” exam — or AWV within the past 12 months, according to a factsheet from the association.

In addition to checks of your vitals, medications, risk factors and so on, the AWV “includes the creation of a personalized prevention plan and detection of possible cognitive impairment,” according to the association. (Side note: At least your first AWV should include a mental health checkup for risk factors of depression or other mood disorders, according to the factsheet.)

A group of experts for the Alzheimer’s Association has compiled some screenings that take five minutes or less for a doctor or other health care professional to administer. For instance, there are the General Practitioner Assessment of Cognition (which is available in multiple languages), the Mini-Cog and the Memory Impairment Screen.

This is not a fun topic, and it’s hard to bring up — it may be one of those burning questions that you push into the back of your mind when, at the end of your visit, the doctor asks if there’s anything else you’d like to talk about that day. But if you start getting assessed at this year’s visit, your doctor can track your results over time and pinpoint whether there might be cause for further discussion, now or sometime down the road.

It’s important to advocate for yourself, and if you’re willing to do it, maybe you’ll save a loved one the stress of starting that difficult conversation on your behalf. Even if you have no real cause to believe you’re experiencing cognitive decline, establishing that baseline and continuing to get assessed regularly can give you and those around you some peace of mind.

With early detection, patients are more likely to benefit from treatment; they can remove some anxieties and better plan for the future; they can find the right doctors and form relationships with them, participate in their care decisions and make it easier for them and their families to manage the disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

The association lists 10 early signs and symptoms of the disease and other forms of dementia. Some of those include memory loss that disrupts daily life; challenges in planning and problem-solving; confusion with time and place; misplacing things and not being able to retrace steps; decreased or poor judgment; and withdrawal from social activities.

If you are concerned about a loved one, Washington University in St. Louis has developed the “Eight-item Informant Interview to Differentiate Aging and Dementia.” That questionnnaire, along with a wide variety of other resources, is available via the Alzheimer’s Association website,

Research is underway to develop treatments for Alzheimer’s disease in its earliest stages, before irreversible brain damage begins — but until that kind of treatment becomes a reality, we and our loved ones can take advantage of the tools at our disposal. Asking for a five-minute assessment at your next AWV is one of the easiest ways to do that.

The Alzheimer’s Association Heart of America chapter offers services out of its main office at 3846 W. 75th St. in Prairie Village; its Education Center is in the same block. Its Northeast Kansas Regional Office is at 3625 SW 29th St., Suite 102, in Topeka. For more information, visit, call 913-831-3888 for the Prairie Village office or call 785-271-1844 for the Topeka office. The nonprofit also has a 24-hour information and support line, 1-800-273-3900.

About Healthy Outlook

Healthy Outlook is a column written by Journal-World reporter and Health section editor Mackenzie Clark, in hopes of helping readers make their lives a little bit happier, healthier and more active.

Have questions about the world of health and wellness in Lawrence, or a health story idea? Contact Mackenzie:

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