Alzheimer’s disease is difficult to diagnose, particularly when it is in the early stages. As the symptoms of Alzheimer’s develop slowly and usually involve subtle problems with memory, people often attribute symptoms to part of the natural aging process. However, an early diagnosis can help people plan for the future and receive any treatment that may help as soon as possible.
There is no one test that can be used to detect Alzheimer’s disease and the steps taken in diagnosing the condition are outlined below.
- A GP asks patients about any problems the patients may be having and other aspects of their health, as well as physically examining them. If memory loss is presenting a problem, the GP will perform some simple tests to try and establish what the cause may be. Aside from dementia, problems with memory can be caused by stress, depression, certain medications and other health issues.
- Blood tests may also be arranged to rule out other causes of certain symptoms.
- If the GP suspects a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, they will refer the patient to a specialist for further testing.
- The specialist assesses memory and cognitive skills and arranges further tests to rule out other conditions. The specialist may be a clinical psychologist, a psychiatrist or a neurologist and is often based in a memory clinic.
- A special questionnaire called the mini mental state examination (MMSE) is often used to assess mental ability. For this test, patients are asked to carry out simple tasks such as memorising objects or recalling the correct day of the week or month. Although the MMSE is not used to diagnose dementia, it can help identify whether there are any areas of concern in terms of mental ability that require further investigation.
- To eliminate any other potential causes of a patient’s symptoms and to check for signs of brain damage that occurs in dementia, the following tests may be arranged:
- CT (computerized tomography) scan, which uses different X-ray images to create a picture of the brain.
- An MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan, which generates a detailed picture of the brain using a magnetic field and radio waves.
Reviewed by Sally Robertson, BSc