When symptoms of memory loss or confused thinking arise, it’s natural to wonder: Is it Alzheimer’s? There is no specific test for Alzheimer’s disease. To achieve a diagnosis, doctors typically order a variety of tests. Most of the tests are to rule out the many, many conditions besides Alzheimer’s that can cause similar symptoms. Some of these have cures. Some do not.
A primary physician is likely to order three types of tests:
- A medical exam with lab work. The doctor will review your loved one’s medications and take a thorough family history. Blood and urine tests will check for problems with the thyroid, liver, and kidneys. Your relative also will be asked to outline what symptoms began and when, and to answer questions about alcohol and drug use and other lifestyle habits. (You may be asked to attend this session.)
- A neuropsychological evaluation. This is a series of tests involving word questions, drawing, and puzzles. The tests assess the functioning of different parts of the brain to discern where there are impairments: Are there problems with memory? With the ability to plan? With language? With math? With judgment? Additional survey questions help rule out depression or other mood disorders that cloud thinking.
- Brain imaging. A CT and/or MRI scan can detect signs of a tumor, stroke, or head injury. A PET scan highlights parts of the brain that have less activity than others.
Once the results are in, your family member can meet with the primary physician to review the findings. Again, the doctor is likely to want you to be present. (Your relative may need help following the discussion. Also analyzing the pros and cons of recommended treatments.)
There is no cure for Alzheimer’s itself. But the sooner you have a diagnosis, the sooner you can act. With treatment if it’s one of the curable dementias. Or medication to slow the progression of an untreatable condition. An early diagnosis also gives you time to make plans for the future.