Page Outline
  1. Introduction
  2. Keep a Journal
  3. Learn About How Alzheimer's is Diagnosed
  4. Seek Help from Alzheimer's Specialists
  5. Understand the Diagnosis
  6. An Early Diagnosis is Important
  7. Information Your Physician Needs to Know
  8. Questions to Ask Your Physician about Testing
  9. Common Tests
  10. Questions to Ask Your Physician About the Diagnosis

Introduction

At the age of 58, Matthew Blair began to have difficulty reading, speaking, and performing daily tasks at work. His wife, Isabel, was convinced that he had Alzheimer's. Believing Matthew was "too young to have Alzheimer's" their primary care physician did not screen for the disease. After seeking help from a specialist Matthew was eventually diagnosed as having "probable Alzheimer's disease."

The Blair's situation is certainly not unique. Families usually turn to their primary care physicians first to diagnose Alzheimer's. Unfortunately, many physicians have not had the proper training to mange the multiple health care problems of older adults or to recognize signs of dementia in younger individuals.

"There is a gap in education for primary care physicians about Alzheimer's disease, especially in the early stages," says Sandra Weintraub, PhD, head of neuropsychology and director of the clinical core at the Northwestern University Alzheimer's Disease Center in Chicago.

If you are not getting the answers you need from your physician, you made need to request a referral to a specialist in Alzheimer's diagnostics. "Let your primary care physician know that you are aware there are resources in the community that evaluate memory loss and that memory loss can be a precursor for subsequent dementia," says Weintraub.

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Keep a Journal

Note the changes that have occurred in your loved one's behavior and memory and the time span during which they occurred. Also, provide a list of all the medications and herbal remedies the person is taking. "Look beyond memory loss for signs of the disease," says Weintraub. "Consider personality and mood changes as possible symptoms."

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Learn About How Alzheimer's is Diagnosed

There is no one diagnostic test that can detect if a person has Alzheimer's disease. However, new diagnostic tools and criteria make it possible to make a positive clinical diagnosis of Alzheimer's with an accuracy of 85-90 percent. A complete diagnosis is based on a number of factors.

Seek Help from Alzheimer's Specialists

Your local Alzheimer's Association can help you locate professionals in your area who specialize in diagnosing Alzheimer's disease. Other resources include Alzheimer's Disease Centers (ADCs) at major medical institutions nationwide. Supported by the National Institute on Aging, most ADCs offer diagnostic services and medical management (costs may vary; many centers accept Medicare, Medicaid, and private insurance). People with Alzheimer's can participate in drug trials and other clinical research projects being conducted at the centers. "The ADCs are the best source for accessing practitioners who can assist in making the diagnosis," says Weintraub.

"ADCs usually act as consultants by providing a diagnosis and follow-up care, and working side-by-side with the patients primary care physician."

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Understand the Diagnosis

A diagnosis of Alzheimer's usually falls into one of the following three categories:

If you are experiencing memory, judgment, or reasoning problems, difficulty with day-to-day functions, or changes in your mood or behavior, it is important to visit a physician to determine if you have Alzheimer's disease or another dementia.

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An Early Diagnosis is Important

Recognizing symptoms early and obtaining an accurate diagnosis is extremely important and it may:

Another important reason to get a diagnosis is to identify the actual cause of the dementia so that you receive the proper care. Dementia related to depression, drug interaction, thyroid problems, and certain vitamin deficiencies, for example, may be reversible if detected early. Other causes of dementia include strokes, Huntington's disease, and Parkinson's disease and are not reversible.

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Information Your Physician Needs to Know

You and a family member can help by providing the physician key information, including:

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Questions to Ask Your Physician about Testing

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Common Tests

There is no one diagnostic test that can detect if a person has Alzheimer's disease. Standard clinical methods combine physical and neuropsychological testing with caregiver input and the physician's judgment, and the diagnostic process may take more than one day. New diagnostic tools and criteria make it possible for physicians to make a positive clinical diagnosis of Alzheimer's with around 90 percent accuracy.

The diagnostic process will involve your primary care physician and possibly other specialty physicians, such as a psychiatrist or neurologist.

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Questions to Ask Your Physician About the Diagnosis

If your physician gives you a diagnosis of Alzheimer's or another form of dementia, asking the following questions may help.

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