How Is Alzheimer’s Disease Diagnosed?

Young Woman Consoling Upset Grandmother

If it seems to you like the number of people who are being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease is increasing, you might be right. But that’s partly because the U.S. population is aging. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average age in this country has climbed by 3.4 years since 2000. As the population grows older, the number of age-related medical issues rises, too. One of these is Alzheimer’s.

Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 6 million people have the disease. That number is projected to soar to 13 million by 2050. While there is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s, early interventions may help slow the progression.

For these interventions to make a difference, an older adult should be evaluated early if Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia is suspected. That’s why it’s important for people to learn the symptoms of this form of dementia and how it is diagnosed.

Red Flags of Alzheimer’s Disease

While many people are aware that forgetfulness and memory loss are signs of Alzheimer’s, there are others that aren’t as well-known. Other symptoms that might indicate a problem include:

  • Change in personality or disposition
  • Forgetting appointments or important dates
  • Insomnia or another sleep disorder
  • Becoming lost, even coming and going from familiar places
  • Difficulty performing tasks that require abstract thought
  • Struggling with written or verbal communication skills
  • Misplacing commonly used items, such as car keys and glasses

These symptoms might not be caused by Alzheimer’s disease at all. They could be the result of a condition that mimics dementia, such as dehydration or an undiagnosed infection. But if an older adult has experienced more than one of these changes, it’s likely a good idea to schedule a physical with a primary care physician.

How Physicians Diagnose Alzheimer’s

After a patient’s doctor has eliminated other potential causes, they might explore whether Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia is the underlying condition. People are frequently surprised to learn there isn’t a single test available that diagnoses this disease. Instead, it is a process of identifying symptoms and eliminating other potential causes.

Testing for Alzheimer’s often includes:

  • Complete medical history: If they haven’t already done so, the physician will likely begin by asking questions about medical conditions that run in the family, as well as lifestyle. Diet, alcohol consumption, smoking and exercise are a few factors they’ll want to learn more about. It also helps if family members write down changes they’ve noticed in the senior, along with how long it’s been going on.
  • Physical exam: A physical will also be on the list. It typically includes blood pressure, temperature, pulse and reflexes. The doctor will also administer a series of questions or problems to solve. These assess the older adult’s memory, reasoning, judgment, attention span and language skills.
  • Blood tests: To rule out a thyroid disorder, an infection or vitamin deficiencies requires blood work. The physician might also order a urine test. Because the symptoms of these health issues are similar to those of dementia, it’s important to eliminate them before moving on with other testing.
  • Depression screening: Another illness that can present like Alzheimer’s, especially among older people, is depression. It is sometimes referred to as pseudodementia. A senior’s doctor might conduct a depression screening or refer the older adult to a mental health expert.
  • Brain imaging: Brain scans are typically ordered, too. These can show if the brain is shrinking, while also looking for other potential causes. A brain aneurysm, tumor, fluid or stroke are a few medical issues that can be detected with imaging.
  • Spinal tap: A newer method of diagnosing Alzheimer’s, which has been successful in Europe, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2018. Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) is collected through a spinal tap and sent to the lab to be evaluated for biomarkers associated with Alzheimer’s.

Based on their findings, the primary care doctor will determine if the reported symptoms are linked to some form of dementia or if there is another underlying medical issue. They may also refer the patient to a neurologist for additional testing.

Experts in Dementia Care

American Senior Communities offers different types of care for adults living with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. They include memory care apartments, advanced memory care and short-term respite. Contact the community nearest you with questions or to schedule a private tour today!

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Disclaimer: The statements on this blog are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. The author does not in any way guarantee or warrant the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of any message and will not be held responsible for the content of any message. Always consult your personal physician for specific medical advice.

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