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How is Alzheimer's Diagnosed? Doctors to See and Tests to Have

Aug 14, 2008
Alzheimer's disease is a complex and complicated illness, and its symptoms are frequently indicative of other disorders as well. As a result, the diagnostic process for the disease can be messy and complicated.

Currently, the only definitive way to diagnose Alzheimer's disease is to examine brain tissue for plaques and tangles. Unfortunately, so far, this can only be done in an autopsy. So you might be wondering "how is Alzheimer's diagnosed?"

Well, doctors must conduct a thorough examination so that they can rule out other possible causes of the symptoms you are experiencing. A diagnosis can be considered "possible" if all other causes cannot be ruled out. It can be considered "probable" if all other causes have been ruled out.

Fortunately, specialists with extensive experience working with Alzheimer's patients can diagnose Alzheimer's with 80-90% certainty.

Early Diagnosis - Don't Waste Time Before Seeing a Doctor

According to Dharma Singh Khalsa, M.D., President and Medical Director of the Alzheimer's Research and Prevention Foundation, it is important that you go for a diagnostic examination as soon as symptoms appear. Dr. Khalsa has found that many of the treatments currently available work best when an early Alzheimer's diagnosis is made.

There are many other advantages to having Alzheimer's diagnosed as early as possible.

First, early diagnosis helps patients and families plan for the future. It gives them time to discuss care options while the patient can still be part of the decision-making process. It also gives the patient time to get financial affairs in order while his or her mental functioning is still at a high level.

Second, early diagnosis allows you to gain access to the Alzheimer's medications that are currently available. Several drugs have been approved by the FDA to treat Alzheimer's symptoms, but they are generally more effective when taken in the early stages of the disease.

Third, early diagnosis allows you to participate in experimental Alzheimer's drug and treatment studies. Right now, more than 200 clinical studies are underway testing new drugs and treatment methods. Most of these studies prefer to work with Alzheimer's patients in the earliest stages of the disease.

Doctors to See and Tests to Have

Most people usually go to their general care physician first. This is understandable - we generally feel more comfortable speaking to someone with whom we already have a relationship.

However, it is a good idea to consult a neurologist or someone who primarily works with Alzheimer's patients when seeking an accurate diagnosis.

Since there is no one test to concretely determine whether you have Alzheimer's disease, most neurologists will conduct a variety of tests to rule out other causes of your symptoms and to more confidently attribute your problems to Alzheimer's.

The following should be part of your diagnostic evaluation:

1. Mini Mental Status Examination:

This generally consists of interviews and tests that are aimed at evaluating your level of cognitive functioning: these tests assess learning, attention, language, memory, and reasoning ability. Other family members may also be interviewed to gain additional insight into recent changes in memory, behavior, and personality.

2. Medical History:

A questionnaire is used to understand past medical problems, injuries, illnesses, chronic conditions, and medications you are currently taking.

3. Mood Evaluation:

This assesses the presence of other issues such as anxiety or depression, which can cause Alzheimer's-like symptoms.

4. Physical Exam:

This generally evaluates hearing, vision, blood pressure, and pulse rate.

5. Lab Tests:

Blood and urine tests are conducted to rule out other causes and conditions.

6. Neuroimaging:

This is generally done by an MRI or CAT scan. These tests let your doctor identify any abnormalities in your brain. They can help identify changes in brain structure that are commonly exhibited in Alzheimer's patients. They can also show the presence of brain tumors, blood clots and strokes - this is very useful in helping to rule out other causes of poor mental functioning.

While doctors are still looking for a more conclusive test to definitively answer the question "how is Alzheimer's diagnosed?", current practices are very accurate, even if they are lengthy and time consuming.

Just make sure that your doctor is thorough and administers all of the evaluations listed above. And make sure your symptoms are diagnosed as soon as you notice them. An early diagnosis will lead to much better treatment of the disease.
About the Author
For more free suggestions and advice on prevention, treatment, and help coping with Alzheimer's disease, please visit the non-profit Alzheimer's Research & Prevention Foundation at www.alzheimersprevention.org
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