When you notice changes in an aging parent’s memory, you might worry it is Alzheimer’s. For many people, it’s the only symptom they are familiar with. Others, such as a change in disposition or problems managing finances, can be red flags, too. But each of these can also be warning signs of a reversible medical condition, such as a vitamin B12 deficiency or an undetected infection.
While there is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s, early interventions may help slow progression of the disease. That’s why it’s important for a senior to see their physician when changes first begin to appear.
How Physicians Diagnose Alzheimer’s
People are often surprised to learn there is no single test that can diagnose Alzheimer’s disease. Instead, it is a process of identifying common symptoms of the disease and eliminating other potential causes.
If a physician suspects Alzheimer’s disease, they will usually complete the following tests to arrive at a diagnosis:
- Family and personal medical history: Your parent’s doctor will likely ask you to share the changes that concern you, so create a list before the first appointment. The doctor will also ask questions about the senior’s medical history and personal lifestyle factors. Diet, exercise, alcohol consumption, and smoking will likely be discussed.
- Physical examination: The physician will assess the senior’s mental and physical wellness. This usually includes checking blood pressure, heart rate, temperature, pulse, and reflexes. The doctor will assess cognitive abilities by asking the senior a series of questions or presenting them with problems to solve. They are designed to evaluate memory, judgment, attention span, reasoning, and language skills.
- Brain imaging: Brain scans are usually conducted. They help detect if the brain is shrinking, while also looking for other potential causes of the changes you’ve noticed in your parent. An aneurysm, tumor, nerve injury, or stroke can all be detected through brain imaging. These conditions can also cause symptoms that look like Alzheimer’s.
- Blood tests: To rule out other conditions that mimic Alzheimer’s, bloodwork will be performed. It can detect a thyroid problem, a urinary tract or other infection, or vitamin B12 deficiency.
- Depression evaluation: Depression is another illness that causes symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s. So much so, it is often referred to as pseudodementia. The physician will usually conduct a depression screening or refer the patient to a mental health expert for an assessment.
- Spinal tap: A process that has been used with success in European countries is collecting cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) to identify biomarkers. It’s done through a spinal tap. In 2018, the Food and Drug Administration approved it for use in this country.
Based on the results of these tests, the primary care doctor will determine if the symptoms are likely Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. If so, they may refer the patient to a neurologist for further follow-up. The tests might also identify a different medical condition that will require appropriate follow-up.
Leaders in Memory Care Services
At Heritage Senior Communities, we understand how difficult it can be to meet the needs of a loved one with memory impairments at home. Whether it’s Alzheimer’s disease or a different type of dementia, safety and quality of life are issues families worry about.
That’s why many of our assisted living centers have a dedicated unit focused on memory care called The Terrace. We invite you to call The Terrace program nearest you with questions about memory care or to schedule an in-person or virtual tour.