Understanding How Doctors Diagnose Dementia

Early signs of Alzheimer's Disease 12/21/2016

If an elderly parent or other senior loved one is beginning to exhibit what we think of as the classic signs of Alzheimer’s — forgetfulness and confusion —- family members often turn to their physician for help. What people are often surprised to learn is that the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s takes time and a series of testing. There is no one test that will conclusively diagnose the disease.

How is Dementia Diagnosed?

The physician will likely begin with a screening in their office to evaluate memory and recall. Based on their findings, they may move on to test for other illnesses that mimic dementia. A few common and typically reversible conditions that can be mistaken for dementia include:

  • Thyroid disease
  • An infection of some type, especially a urinary tract infection
  • Severe vitamin B12 deficiency
  • Medication side effects or interactions
  • Dehydration

If a primary care physician eliminates other potential causes of the troubling symptoms a family is witnessing, the next step might be a referral to a neurologist.

Who Diagnoses Dementia?

Neurologists are often the type of physician other health care professionals defer to when Alzheimer’s is indicated. Families can help the neurologist make an accurate diagnosis by being well-prepared for their first visit.

  • Follow Pre-Appointment Protocols: The neurologist may have pre-appointment protocols in place that should be completed prior to the first appointment. It often includes ensuring copies of previous testing are sent to their office and obtaining any necessary bloodwork.
  • Organize Your List of Concerns: Another step you can take to make the most of your visit with the neurologist is to organize your list of concerns. Some family caregivers find it helps to document the behaviors and symptoms they are worried about on a calendar or in a journal. Then use that to create a list to share with the neurologist.
  • Medication List: Be certain to bring a list of your senior loved one’s current medications, including both prescriptions and over-the-counter medicines. Also make sure the list includes dosage amounts and the prescribing physician.

The First Visit with a Neurologist: What to Expect

Many neurologists follow a standard protocol when evaluating an adult for Alzheimer’s disease. The protocol usually includes:

  • A physical exam to check for other health conditions
  • A neurological exam that includes testing reflexes, balance, muscle strength, and coordination
  • A mental status test to evaluate cognitive health

The neurologist may also order brain imaging tests such as a CT scan, an MRI or a PET scan.

Elmcroft Senior Living Resource Center

If you are a family caregiver trying to learn more about Alzheimer’s disease or other aging-related issues, you might find the Elmcroft Senior Living Resource Center to be of help. There you will find articles, tools and resources on topics ranging from how to compare assisted living communities to tips for preventing dehydration in a senior with dementia.