How Is Alzheimer’s Disease Diagnosed?

Wondering if a senior’s symptoms are signs of Alzheimer’s? And how doctors diagnose the disease? Learn more here.

A senior woman sitting in a well lit room.

If you’ve noticed changes in a spouse or senior loved one, you might wonder if they are normal signs of aging or symptoms of a more serious health issue. Forgetfulness is especially noticeable, but it can be difficult to identify what’s triggering it. One cause of memory loss that becomes more common with aging is dementia. Alzheimer’s is the most prevalent type.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the disease accounts for 60 to 80 percent of all dementia diagnoses. While there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, there are steps people can take that may slow the progression of the disease. That’s why it’s important for a senior to be evaluated as soon as symptoms become apparent.

Early intervention can also rule out a health condition that mimics Alzheimer’s. A vitamin deficiency, thyroid disorder, urinary tract infection, and depression all have symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s. Most can be treated and reversed, especially if detected early.

Methods of Diagnosing Alzheimer’s Disease

People are often surprised to learn there is no single test for diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease. Instead, it is a process of identifying symptoms and eliminating other potential causes. A senior’s doctor will usually begin by obtaining more information and ordering a series of tests, including:

  • Medical history: The physician will usually ask questions about the older adult’s personal and family medical history. They also delve into lifestyle factors, such as diet, alcohol consumption, and smoking. Bring a list of changes you’ve noticed in your senior family member and how often these symptoms occur. Be sure to note when they started and what, if any, situations cause the condition to worsen.
  • Physical exam: A thorough physical examination is also a key part of the process. The senior’s doctor will evaluate blood pressure, temperature, pulse, reflexes, and heart rate. They will also assess memory and problem-solving skills by asking a series of questions or presenting the older patient with problems to solve. These are designed to test memory, reasoning, judgment, attention span, and language skills.
  • Blood tests: Because memory loss can be caused by infection, a thyroid problem, or a vitamin deficiency, the doctor will also order blood work. This helps to detect or eliminate conditions that mimic Alzheimer’s.
  • Depression assessment: Surprisingly, depression can present like Alzheimer’s, so much so that it is sometimes referred to as pseudodementia. The physician may conduct a depression screening in their office or refer the senior to a mental health expert for a more thorough evaluation.
  • Spinal tap: Since 2018, when the Food and Drug Administration approved biomarker tests for Alzheimer’s disease, a spinal tap has been used to collect cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). This process is one more tool to make a more accurate diagnosis if Alzheimer’s is suspected.
  • Brain imaging: Another part of the evaluation will likely be scans of the brain. These images show if the brain is shrinking while also looking for other potential causes of symptoms. A brain aneurysm, tumor, bleeding, nerve injury, or stroke can all be detected through brain imaging.

Based on the results, the senior’s primary care doctor will determine if the reported symptoms are linked to Alzheimer’s, dementia, or another health condition.

Dementia Care at The Wesley Community

If the diagnosis does turn out to be Alzheimer’s or dementia, seniors have a wide range of options for care and support. From in-home caregivers to specialized dementia care, The Wesley Community can be the solution. Call (518) 587- 3600 to speak with a senior care expert today!