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Untangling the Web of Alzheimer’s Diagnosis

Diagnosing Alzheimer’s can be challenging because there is currently no single test or scan which can detect the disease. In fact, a definitive diagnosis is only possible after death through the examination of brain tissue.

Memory Loss Might Not Mean Alzheimer's

It is essential to go through the diagnostic process, but problems with your memory or thinking can be caused by different things – many of which can be treated or even reversed. Possible non-Alzheimer’s diagnoses for memory problems include:

When it is Alzheimer's, Diagnosis is Important

While many of the conditions which affect memory can be treated or reversed, Alzheimer’s disease cannot be stopped or reversed. But the earliest and clearest possible diagnosis of possible or probable Alzheimer’s dementia makes it possible to:

  • Start treatment and preserve as much daily functioning as possible, for as long as possible.
  • Participate in clinical trials of new treatments and research studies.
  • Prepare for the future by getting finances and legal matters in order.
  • Head off safety issues and plan proactively for living arrangements.
  • Develop a support network for the entire family.

How is Alzheimer's Disease Diagnosed?

Doctors will complete a thorough exam of the nervous system in order to get the best possible picture of what’s going on with thinking and memory, and they may perform other tests and assessments, including:

  • Complete health history. This may include questions about overall health and past health problems. The provider will assess how well daily tasks are performed. The provider may ask family members about any changes in behavior or personality.
  • Mental status test. This may include tests of memory, problem-solving, attention, counting and language. Neuropsychological testing may also be done. This will likely be a series of tests that assess brain function. It usually involves answering questions and doing certain tasks.
  • Standard medical tests. These may include blood and urine tests to find possible causes of the problem.
  • Brain imaging tests. CT, MRI, or position emission tomography (PET) may be used to rule out other causes.

Specialists who may be involved in the process include, geriatricians who specialize in the medical care of older adults, geriatric psychiatrists who specialize in older adults’ mental/emotional problems, neurologists who specialize in brain and central nervous system abnormalities and neuropsychologists who specialize in how nervous system diseases contribute to mental disorders.

People with memory and cognitive problems are typically seen every six to 12 months to monitor changes in memory, thinking, judgement, language, problem-solving, personality and movement. Tests may be repeated to gauge how much memory and functioning have changed.

If you have questions or concerns about Alzheimer’s disease and the diagnosis process for you or a loved one, please visit with a primary care provider.

Heather Morgan, MD
Heather Morgan, MD

Heather Morgan, MD is a Geriatrician and Palliative Care Physician at CHI Health Clinic.

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