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Early Warning Signs: When to Call the Doctor About Alzheimer's

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Addressing Alzheimer’s Disease Concerns with the Doctor

For a first appointment, you might start with your loved one’s primary care provider. Or you might go right to a specialist, like a psychiatrist or a neurologist. Over time, you may have a number of experts involved in your loved one’s care.

Unfortunately, there’s no definitive test for Alzheimer’s disease. So doctors use a number of different techniques to come up with a diagnosis. In addition to a typical physical exam and blood and urine tests, these could include:

  • Mental status tests. The doctor may ask a series of questions that assess a person’s mental function. They test a person’s short-term memory, ability to follow instructions, and problem-solving skills. Specific tests include the mini-mental state exam (MMSE) and the “mini-cog.”
  • Neurological exams. In checking for signs of Alzheimer’s, the doctor will also check your loved one’s neurological function, including speech, balance, coordination, and reflexes.
  • Imaging tests. CT scans, MRIs, and PET scans might be helpful in making a diagnosis. They may find physical signs of Alzheimer's in the brain and also rule out other causes for the symptoms -- like tumors or strokes.

Make sure to do your part. The doctor will need some basic information from you, so go in prepared with details about:

  • The Alzheimer’s symptoms you’ve noticed and when they began
  • Other health conditions your loved one has
  • The daily medications she uses, including supplements and alternative treatments
  • Your loved one’s diet and alcohol use
  • Any important changes in your loved one’s life -- like retirement, a recent move, or the death of a spouse

Because Alzheimer’s warning signs may be confused with normal changes that can come with old age, its diagnosis may not be clear-cut.

If you’re not satisfied with the doctor's assessment, get a second opinion. Alzheimer’s disease can go on a long time, and during those years you’ll need to work closely with a doctor. It’s key that you find a caring, sympathetic healthcare professional you trust.

Don’t Ignore Alzheimer’s Warning Signs

Of course, you might not want to see a doctor yet. You might want to wait and see if things get worse. Many people put off consulting an expert for years - long after they’ve noticed obvious symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Why?

  • People worry that their loved ones will be offended or angry if they mention their memory problems.
  • Considering that Alzheimer’s disease has no cure, people might assume that there’s no point in rushing off to get the bad news.
  • Deep down, some people don’t want to admit to themselves that something might be wrong.

These are all very understandable, very human reasons to put off seeing an expert. But if you suspect your loved one might have Alzheimer’s, you need to see a doctor soon. Here’s why:

  • Your loved one may not have Alzheimer’s disease. Even if your love one has dementia, it might not be Alzheimer’s. Other conditions can cause dementia or similar symptoms. They include vitamin deficiencies, thyroid problems, depression, drug interactions, and alcohol abuse. Many of these conditions are treatable. Putting off a trip to the doctor could leave your loved one suffering pointlessly.
  • The sooner Alzheimer's disease is diagnosed, the sooner you can get treatment. Alzheimer’s disease isn’t curable, but it is treatable. Drugs may help slow down the progression of symptoms for a limited time. Your loved one may also be eligible for clinical trials in which new, cutting-edge Alzheimer’s treatments are available.
  • The sooner Alzheimer’s disease is diagnosed, the sooner you can plan for it. Accepting that a loved one has Alzheimer’s is terribly difficult. But the sooner you do, the better off you are. The earlier you catch it, the more time you’ll have to learn about the condition and prepare for what’s ahead.

For your loved one’s sake -- and for your own -- don’t ignore the possible warnings signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Don’t wait until there’s a crisis before you see a doctor. If you have any concerns about your loved one’s memory or behavior, schedule an evaluation now.

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WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on March 07, 2014
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