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Alzheimer's Disease Basics

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How Is Alzheimer's Disease Diagnosed?

It is important to visit a doctor if you or a loved one experiences any of these symptoms of Alzheimer's disease so that you can receive the proper evaluation and diagnosis. There are other conditions -- such as depression, a head injury, stroke, certain chemical or vitamin imbalances, or the effects of some medications -- that can produce symptoms that are similar to Alzheimer's disease. Many of these conditions are treatable.

Your doctor can only determine if the symptoms are probably due to Alzheimer's disease after a thorough medical, psychiatric, and neurological evaluation. Positron emission tomography, or a PET scan, of the brain may be useful if the person meets certain criteria. Because drugs exist that may lessen the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, the doctor will evaluate other possible causes of dementia to rule out all other factors before settling on Alzheimer's disease as a diagnosis.

Currently, no definitive diagnostic test for Alzheimer's disease exists. A definite diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease is possible only after death when a pathologist can more closely examine a patient's brain for the telltale changes associated with the disease.

What's the Prognosis for Alzheimer's Disease?

The course of Alzheimer's disease varies widely from person to person. The duration of the illness could be short (2-3 years) or long (up to 20 years). Usually, the parts of the brain that control memory and thinking are affected first, but over time, cells die in other areas of the brain.

Eventually, a person with Alzheimer's disease will need complete care. If the person has no other serious illnesses, the loss of brain function itself will eventually cause death.

Can Alzheimer's Disease Be Prevented?

Because the exact cause of Alzheimer's disease is not known, there is currently nothing that can be done to guarantee its prevention. Some interventions may be worth incorporating into your life as more research reveals some potentially controllable risk factors. Staying mentally and physically active, maintaining a normal blood pressure and avoiding head injury by wearing seat belts and helmets may decrease your chances of developing Alzheimer's dementia.

It is important to remember, however, that there are causes of dementia other than Alzheimer's disease that may be preventable by such means as eating properly, exercising, quitting smoking, and limiting how much alcohol you drink. Your doctor can advise you about other healthy lifestyle habits you can adopt that may help prevent dementia.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Neil Lava, MD on May 26, 2014
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