Alzheimer’s is diagnosed through a complete medical assessment. Doctors conduct tests to assess memory impairment and other thinking skills, judge functional abilities, and identify behavior changes. They also perform a series of tests to rule out other possible causes of impairment. If you or a loved one have concerns about memory loss or other symptoms of Alzheimer’s or dementia, it is important to be evaluated by a physician.
There is no single test that can show whether a person has Alzheimer’s. While physicians can almost always determine if a person has dementia, it may be difficult to determine the exact cause. Diagnosing Alzheimer’s requires careful medical evaluation, including:
• A thorough medical history
• Mental status testing
• A physical and neurological exam
• Tests (such as blood tests and brain imaging) to rule out other causes of dementia-like symptoms
Having trouble with memory does not mean you have Alzheimer’s. Many health issues can cause problems with memory and thinking. Your doctor may order other tests to rule out diseases that may be causing your symptoms. You may have laboratory tests to check for thyroid problems or vitamin B-12 deficiency. You may be evaluated to determine if depression may be contributing to your symptoms. Generally speaking, doctors will perform a physical evaluation and check that you don’t have other health conditions that could be causing or contributing to your symptoms, such as signs of past strokes, Parkinson’s disease or other medical conditions. When dementia-like symptoms are caused by treatable conditions — such as depression, drug interactions, thyroid problems, excess use of alcohol or certain vitamin deficiencies — they may be reversed.
Benefits of Early Diagnosis
While it’s true that if you have Alzheimer’s or a related disease, doctors can’t offer a cure. But getting an early diagnosis can be beneficial. Knowing what you can do is just as important as knowing what you can’t do. If a person has another treatable condition that’s causing the cognitive impairment or somehow complicating the impairment, then doctors can start treatments.
Although the onset of Alzheimer’s disease cannot yet be stopped or reversed, an early diagnosis allows people with dementia and their families:
• Appropriate community services and resources
• Options for residential and at-home care
• Plans for handling financial issues
• Expectations for future care and medical decisions
When a doctor tells you and your family members about an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, he or she will help you understand Alzheimer’s, answer questions and explain what to expect with Alzheimer’s.