Alzheimer's Disease: How It’s Diagnosed

Alzheimer’s disease isn’t part of normal aging. If you think you or a loved one might be showing symptoms of the disease, it’s important to see a doctor to get a diagnosis. Some warning signs to get checked are memory loss, behavior changes, or trouble with speech and decision-making.

But Alzheimer’s has many of the same symptoms as other common conditions, too. Those include depression, poor nutrition, and taking medications that don’t work well together. A doctor can find out if the symptoms are happening because of Alzheimer’s or due to something else that’s easier to treat.

An early and accurate diagnosis can also give you or your loved one time to plan for the future. You can start using some medicines that help people in the earlier stages of Alzheimer's control some of their symptoms for a while as well. On average, these drugs keep symptoms from getting worse for about 6 to 12 months in about half of the people who take them.

Getting a Diagnosis

Doctors can’t definitely diagnose Alzheimer's disease until after death, when they can closely examine the brain under a microscope. But they can use tests to rule out other conditions that might cause the same symptoms.

Here’s what you can expect when you or your loved one is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

Health History

Your doctor will do a physical exam and ask questions about your past and current health. He’ll want to know:

  • Your symptoms, including any trouble you have with everyday tasks
  • Other medical conditions you have now or had before
  • Medications you take
  • Your personal history, like your marital status, living conditions, employment, sexual history, and important life events
  • Your mental state. The doctor will ask you a series of questions that help him figure out if you’re having a mental health problem, like depression.
  • Family history, including any illnesses that seem to run in the family

Mini Mental State Exam

This is a brief test that checks your:

  • Problem-solving skills
  • Attention span
  • Counting skills
  • Memory

These tests will help your doctor know whether there are problems with the areas of your brain involved in learning, memory, thinking, or planning skills.

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CT Scan

In CT (computed tomography) a machine takes X-rays of your body from many different angles in a very short period of time. A computer turns the scans into a series of images that look like "slices" through the body. CT scans can show brain changes that are common in the later stages of Alzheimer's.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)

MRI makes very clear pictures of your body using a large magnet, radio waves, and a computer. It can help doctors see if a tumor or a stroke has caused symptoms that look like Alzheimer’s. It also may help to show the brain changes that are linked to the disease.

Neuropsychological Testing

This studies the relationship between the brain and behavior. It helps in the diagnosis and treatment of conditions that affect thinking, emotion, and behavior, including Alzheimer’s.

Doctors give you these tests along with a thorough interview. They may also give you other tests to check memory, language, the ability to plan and reason, and the ability to change behavior.

Neuropsychological testing also can help the doctor and your family better understand the effect of a disorder on your everyday life.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Richard Senelick, MD on May 07, 2015

Sources

SOURCES: 

The Fisher Center for Alzheimer's Research Foundation. 

News release, FDA. Alzheimer's Association. 

Society for Nuclear Medicine and Molecular Imaging. 

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