Written by Josh Horsman
Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common form of dementia, being responsible for around 40 to 70% of all cases. It is typically characterised by symptoms of memory-loss which disrupts daily-life, confusion about place or time and difficulty completing everyday tasks. For many people, these symptoms may be experienced occasionally as a normal part of the ageing process and so you may have nothing to worry about. However, should you have Alzheimer’s Disease, it is important to receive a diagnosis as early as possible so that you can receive the best possible treatment and continue to live a full life. That’s why, while it may be daunting, it’s always best to seek medical advice and try to get to the bottom of what’s causing your symptoms.
Here’s a useful guide to how Alzheimer’s Disease is diagnosed:
1. Report Your Symptoms
Memory-loss is the most common and most recognizable symptom of Alzheimer’s Disease (AD), and so if you find yourself having frequent issues with your memory as you get older, it is prudent to see your doctor, even if just to rule out Alzheimer’s.
If you are experiencing short-term memory problems, first and foremost it is important not to panic. Whilst memory problems are a symptom of AD, there are also many other causes including depression or anxiety, stress, medications, alcohol or drugs and other health conditions such as nutritional deficiencies.
If you are in any doubt about whether the symptoms you are experiencing are something more serious than ‘normal’ signs of ageing, then your first port of call should be your Primary Care Physician (PCP) or GP. It may be that your doctor is able to quickly rule out anything further and your visit will simply give you peace of mind, but if they suspect your symptoms are the sign of an underlying condition you will have taken the first steps towards a diagnosis and receiving the treatment you need. Either way, it is important to report your concerns to your doctor.
2. Doctor’s Consultation
Your doctor will ask you some basic questions about your symptoms and related aspects of your personal health and then give you a physical examination. You will also be asked to take written and/or oral memory tests. These tests are nothing to worry about and will not produce an instant diagnosis, but will instead give your medical professionals an assessment of your general cognitive function. The common test for Alzheimer’s is the MMSE test, a brief test which evaluates your problem-solving skills, attention span, counting skills and memory.
Your doctor may then make arrangements for you to have a blood test to provide further information to make an informed overall assessment of your cognitive and physical health and to rule out possible conditions.
3. Referral to an Alzheimer’s Specialist
Alzheimer’s Disease is a complicated condition to diagnose and so your doctor is unlikely to be able to confidently assess you as having AD unless your symptoms are more severe. If they are not able to rule it out however, they will then refer you to a specialist.
The specialist might be based in a memory clinic, working with other professionals who are experts in diagnosing, caring for and advising people with dementia, and their families.
It is important to approach a meeting with such a specialist with an open-mind, rather than with fear. Take some time beforehand to organise your thoughts and prepare any questions you might have to ensure that you maximise your time with the specialist.
Following initial consultation, the specialist will then likely arrange for you to undergo further testing to provide a more accurate diagnosis. Alzheimer’s Disease is difficult to diagnose, but common tests including MRI scans and CT scans are as effective a tool as is available in modern healthcare. These are both common and safe procedures designed to provide your doctors with a detailed assessment of your brain functionality so they can provide an assured diagnosis. You may also be asked to take further, more in-depth, written and/or oral memory tests.
4. Dealing with a Diagnosis
Following consultation with a specialist and the results of your tests, your doctor should be able to give you a well-informed diagnosis. They will first give you the option if you’d like to know the diagnosis. Once you know for sure that you have Alzheimer's Disease, your doctor will explain what your diagnosis means and give their advice for your future treatment. This is also the right time to ask all the questions you might have about your diagnosis.
Your doctor should also be able to advise you about other organisations which can offer you support and where to find any financial and legal advice you may need as a result of your diagnosis.
5. Follow-up Support
Following a diagnosis, your doctor will not simply leave you to your own devices. They will want to arrange future, regular check-ups to keep track of your condition. The specialists who assessed you may also want you to see them for regular check-ups, especially in the early stages. Your doctor will also be able to connect you to local support groups and organisations which exist to help and support those living with Alzheimer’s and their family.
As part of your initial treatment, your PCP or specialist may also inform you about medications which you could take to help control your symptoms. Common prescription drugs used to treat Alzheimer’s Disease include cholinesterase inhibitors like Donepezil, Rivastigmate and Galantamine. However, prescription drugs are not effective for everyone with the condition, so this will depend entirely on your specific case. For more information on treatments for AD, read our blog.
In the initial stages after a diagnosis, it is also important to plan for the future, as Alzheimer’s is a progressive condition with symptoms worsening over time. This planning should include discussing future care with family members and getting your financial and legal matters in order to ensure your future treatment and support.
For more information on Alzheimer's Disease and to find the tools to help you reduce your risk of all forms of Dementia, be sure to download the free MindMate App.