Diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease

doctor with a notepad

If you are concerned about changes (either in yourself or in a family member) that involve memory, the ability to think, sensory perception, behavior, mood, or the ability to move that do not seem normal, talk with a doctor. While Alzheimer’s disease can only be definitively diagnosed after death (via an examination of brain tissue during an autopsy), a preliminary diagnosis while a person is still alive is extremely important and useful in order to treat symptoms.

Your doctor can use several methods and tools to help determine whether these changes are due to “possible Alzheimer’s disease” (dementia may be due to another cause), “probable Alzheimer’s disease” (no other cause for dementia can be found), or some other problem.

How is Alzheimer’s diagnosed?

When diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease, a doctors might:

  • Ask the person and a family member or friend questions about overall health, past medical problems, the ability to carry out daily activities, and changes in behavior and personality.
  • Conduct tests of memory, problem solving, attention, counting, and language.
  • Carry out standard medical tests, such as blood and urine tests, to identify other possible causes of the problem.
  • Perform brain scans, such as computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or positron emission tomography (PET), to rule out other possible causes for the symptoms.

These tests may be repeated to give doctors information about how the person’s memory and other cognitive functions are changing over time.

The earlier, the better

Early, accurate diagnosis is beneficial for several reasons. Beginning treatment early in the disease process may help preserve daily functioning for some time (even though the underlying Alzheimer’s process cannot be stopped or reversed).

Having an early diagnosis also helps people with Alzheimer’s and their families:

  • Plan for the future.
  • Take care of financial and legal matters.
  • Address potential safety issues.
  • Learn about living arrangements.
  • Develop support networks.

In addition, early diagnosis gives people greater opportunities to participate in clinical trials or other research studies that are testing possible new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease.

For more information about Alzheimer’s disease, visit the Alzheimer’s Association Research Center at http://www.alz.org/research/overview.asp.

Information Courtesy of National Institute on Aging

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