Dementia Care

Diagnosing Alzheimer’s Disease

October 19, 2023  •  3 min read

Unlike cancer or heart disease, there isn’t a single diagnostic test for Alzheimer’s. Doctors have a toolbox of approaches and questions that support their eventual diagnoses. Everything they ask and test ultimately provides vital information, so it’s good to be prepared to provide physicians with the knowledge they need. 

Medical workup and history

The doctor will typically begin by asking about the patient’s medical history (specifically changes in cognitive functions and behavior), psychiatric history, and any record of dementia in other family members. The doctor will want to know what symptoms you’ve noticed, when they began, and how often they occur. They’ll also perform a basic physical exam that includes blood pressure, urine/blood samples, listening to the heart and lungs, etc. The doctor will ask about diet, exercise, and alcohol use, as well as medications, so be sure to bring a list.

Neurological exam

After gathering information about medical history, symptoms, and physical health, the doctor will move on to a neurological exam. The bulk of the neurological exam is fairly straightforward, covering reflexes, muscle tone, eye movement, speech, and a few other tests that may indicate brain disorders caused by stroke, tumors, brain fluid, and other issues.

If doctors need to go deeper, they may recommend brain imaging to rule out other causes with symptoms that overlap with dementia, or a PET scan to check for amyloid protein build-up, which is a marker of Alzheimer’s.

Cognitive tests

Cognitive tests evaluate memory, problem-solving skills, language, and attention, and can range in complexity. They’ll determine if the person being tested is aware of their symptoms and the date/time/place, and will test if the person can follow instructions, perform simple math problems, and remember a short list of words in a specific sequence. Other tests in this category screen for depression and mood disorders.

The reason for all of these tests and screenings is to pinpoint the cause of the issues. Symptoms of dementia can often be triggered by something other than Alzheimer’s such as depression, medications, thyroid issues, vitamin B-12 deficiency, or excessive alcohol consumption. The good news: those conditions can be reversed. 

If the diagnosis does point to Alzheimer’s, the news is not as good. But while Alzheimer’s can’t be cured, it can be slowed and planned for with an early diagnosis. The bottom line: If you’re concerned about yourself or a loved one, talk to your doctor.