Alzheimer’s Disease-Testing and Diagnosis

March 26, 2008 by  
Filed under ALZHEIMER'S

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This is the third post in a series looking at how do you know if its Alzheimer’s disease?  The first two posts, Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease and Alzheimer’s and Dementia-the Differences laid a foundation for the symptomology, characteristics and key definitions.  In this post, I’ll discuss how medical professionals actually get to a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.

So, as our story continues, your suspicions have been verified.  Grandpa does indeed have dementia.  As we learned in yesterday’s post, the question now becomes, “what is the cause of the dementia?” Is it Alzheimer’s disease or some imposter?

Here is where it gets a little tricky, as there is no real test for Alzheimer’s disease.  Instead, medical professionals will begin the task of testing for certain conditions that cause dementia and as those conditions are ruled out, they become more and more certain that it is, in fact,  Alzheimer’s disease.  Dr. Eric Tangalos of the Mayo Clinic suggests that elderly with memory problems should be tested thoroughly to confirm, with as much accuracy as possible, that it’s Alzheimer’s disease.

Let’s look at some of the tests and procedures that might take place:

Medical history-The doctor should review past medical history carefully.  She’ll use this information to notice family patterns, prior Alzheimer’s, mini strokes or strokes, etc.  You should make a list of all medications, dosage and approximate time your loved one has been taking them. This will be of tremendous help to your doctor.

Mental Status Testing-The doctor will ask simple things like the date and time. Other questions will be asked to determine if the person is aware of his surroundings or recognizes familiar people.  As a part of mental status testing, the doctor will probably do what is called a Mini Mental State Exam (MMSE).   Your loved one may be asked to:

  • Spell “world” backwards
  • Count backwards by 7’s from 100
  • Respond to questions regarding seasons and dates
  • Follow instructions, usually sequential such as sit down, cross your legs and fold your arms.

Physical exam-This one is pretty obvious, but the physician will be checking for causes of dementia such as previous strokes, alcoholism, thyroid problems and a host of conditions that might mimick Alzheimer’s disease. They may do blood tests to rule out things like infection, severe anemia and or vitamin deficiencies, thyroid problems, diabetes, kidney or liver issues.

Neurological Exam-The doctor is looking for lapses in brain and or nervous system function.  Generally, the physician will test speech, ability of the eyes to move, balance/coordination, muscles and reflexes.

Imaging–This does not happen in all cases, but it is a valuable tool as technology makes it more and more easier to actually see the brain and what is going on.

It is important to note that one or more of these categories of tests may take place at one appointment and may not require a specialist. 

You now know the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, you understand the differences between Alzheimer’s and dementia and you know about testing and diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease.

Please be reminded that YOU are your own (and your loved one’s) best advocate.  Trisha Torrey has a great post, “Taking Responsibility For Health Care Decisions,” that is a serious reminder that ultimately, we are responsible for our health care decisions.  So, ask questions until you understand what the doctor is saying, do your own research and then ask more questions.  If you have any doubts, get a second opinion.

Tomorrow, I’ll discuss the stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

May I give you a virtual penny for your very real thoughts?  Please leave a comment or send a private message to:

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