How Is Alzheimer’s Diagnosed?
Alzheimer’s disease—a progressive brain disorder that slowly causes one’s memory to degenerate—affects one in every 10 people aged 65 and older. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, between the years 2000 and 2018, deaths from Alzheimer’s disease have increased 146%—with the number of Americans living with Alzheimer’s expected to grow to nearly 14 million by 2050.
While there is currently no cure, an early and accurate diagnosis of the disease can improve the quality of life of those living with Alzheimer’s. Medication management and specific treatments can help individuals maintain mental function, manage behavioral symptoms, and slow or delay the progression of the disease. Early detection also helps family members and loved ones plan for the future, seek out support networks, and ensure financial and legal matters are taken care of.
10 Early Warning Signs and When You Should Seek Help
Misplacing things from time to time and sometimes forgetting the right words are common changes related to aging. However, the type of memory loss and challenges presented by Alzheimer’s are not a normal part of aging and commonly interfere with daily life.
If you recognize any of the following symptoms in yourself or a loved one, it’s important to speak to your medical care provider as soon as possible about your concerns:
- Memory loss that disrupts daily life, such as forgetting important dates and asking the same questions multiple times
- Having difficulty planning or problem-solving, such as struggling to keep track of monthly bills or having difficulty concentrating
- Struggling to complete familiar tasks, such as driving to a well-known location or remembering the rules to a favorite game
- Losing track of dates, seasons, and time
- Vision problems, including difficulty understanding images, spatial relationships, and readings
- Troubles with speech or writing, including calling objects by the wrong name, being repetitive, or losing track of a conversation
- Misplacing objects and not being able to retrace steps
- Changes in judgment and decision-making, such as neglecting personal hygiene or finances
- Withdrawal from social activities, hobbies, and other engagements or responsibilities
- Changes in mood, including increased confusion, anxiety, fear, depression, and suspicion
What Kind of Doctor Diagnoses Alzheimer’s?
Although your primary care physician (PCP) may be able to provide a cursory examination, you’ll eventually want to seek out a physician who is specialized and experienced in Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Your PCP is likely to refer you to a neurologist, geriatrician, neuropsychologist, or other specialist to complete a thorough examination—your local Alzheimer’s Association chapter should be able to help you locate the appropriate specialist if you need guidance. Prior to scheduling an appointment with any physician, ask which diagnostic procedures they will use—if the evaluation doesn’t sound comprehensive, you should seek out a different physician.
How Do Doctors Diagnose Alzheimer’s?
Because Alzheimer’s cannot be definitively diagnosed until after death, and because there are a number of conditions that produce similar symptoms, diagnosing the disease can be challenging. With that said, there are a number of tests that can help doctors determine whether a person has “possible Alzheimer’s dementia” (meaning dementia may be due to another cause) or “probable Alzheimer’s dementia” (meaning that no other cause of dementia can be found). These tests may include:
- An examination of medical history, including family medical history, as those with a parent or sibling with Alzheimer’s may be more likely to develop the disease
- A physical examination that involves checking blood pressure, temperature, pulse, and other procedures that can evaluate a person’s overall health
- Depression screening, as depression can cause many memory and thinking problems that are similar to symptoms presented by dementia
- Diagnostic tests that help determine brain function, including brain scans, electroencephalograms (EEG), lumbar punctures, neuropsychological testing, and functional assessments
- Lab tests, such as blood and urine samples, which can help detect anemia, infection, kidney and liver disorders, thyroid function, vitamin B12 deficiency, blood calcium, and more
Your doctor will most likely use multiple tests to evaluate your memory and thinking, and it may require several visits before a possible or probable diagnosis can be made. Understanding the tests available not only empowers you as a patient to ensure you receive thorough medical care—becoming more knowledgeable about what each test involves can help ease feelings of uncertainty and anxiety. Finally, an early diagnosis may allow you to participate in or advocate for research and clinical trials that can advance our understanding of the disease and new treatments.
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