Diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease

Published in Wellness Author: Amber Vick,MD

At one time or another, everyone has experienced that moment when you can’t remember someone’s name or you have trouble coming up with a certain word. It can be annoying and sometimes even embarrassing, but at what point does it become concerning?

As we age, it’s common to become forgetful. However, when memory problems start to interfere with daily tasks or become noticeable by family and friends, it’s time to make an appointment with your doctor.

Alzheimer's is a type of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior. It is the most common form of dementia and accounts for 60 to 80 percent of all dementia cases. It is also the 6th leading cause of death in the United States.

Physicians use a variety of approaches and tools to determine if a patient has Alzheimer’s disease. The first step is a physical exam and a review of the patient’s full medical history. Your doctor will ask you about your current and past illnesses, any medications you are currently taking, and whether any family members who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or dementia.

In addition, your doctor will want to know about your current symptoms, when they began, how often they happen, and whether they’ve gotten worse over time. Sometimes dementia-like symptoms can be caused by other illnesses or conditions, including depression, untreated sleep apnea, side effects of medications, thyroid problems, and certain vitamin deficiencies.

The next step is a neurological exam. A neurologist will check your reflexes, coordination, muscle tone, strength, eye movement, speech, and sensation. An MRI or CT scan may also be ordered to rule out other conditions like tumors, evidence of small or large strokes, damage from severe head trauma, or a buildup of fluid in the brain.

Once the physical and neurological exams have been completed, your physician will order a series of short screening tests. These tests evaluate memory, ability to solve simple problems, and overall cognitive skills. The results of the mental status tests will help your physician determine the specific areas of impairment how far progressed the disease may be.

It’s perfectly understandable that most people are afraid to consult their doctor about symptoms related to dementia. However, it’s important to recognize there are other conditions that could be causing the symptoms, and these are often treatable and reversible. If Alzheimer’s is determined to be the cause, there are many benefits to getting an early diagnosis. Perhaps the most important is time. Early diagnosis allows you to access treatment options, participate in clinical trials, plan for the future, and maximize your time with family and friends.

For more information about Alzheimer’s disease and a list of the 10 warning signs, visit the Alzheimer’s Association website at alz.org.