Providers can improve screening questions to more accurately detect patients who may be at risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease and other aging-related problems, according to a new study published in the journal The Gerontologist.

Researchers from Penn State found that the two most common problems with the wording of questions used to detect those with memory loss were vagueness and an assumption that their behavior or experience is always the same. Additionally, the questions could be confusing or trigger emotional responses, which may result in individuals who answer the same questions differently, and for different reasons.

The goal of screening patients is to detect memory loss as early as possible, in order to improve treatments and lower overall costs. Jacqueline Mogle, assistant professor at Penn State, said creating good questions is important not only for screening patients early for the disease, but also so researchers can ask good questions when studying these populations.

“When we ask people questions, we assume that they see the questions the same way we do,” Mogle said. “However, that clearly isn’t the case. What we might see as a straightforward question — like, ‘Do you have problems with your memory?’ — may mean something very different for older adults. Right now, it isn’t clear how they are deciding to answer the question.”

Nikki Hill, assistant professor of nursing at Penn State, said the results will help clinicians and researchers ask better questions and better interpret patient responses.