Alzheimer's disease - Diagnosis
If you are worried about your memory or having problems with planning and organising, talk to your GP.
If you're worried about someone else, try to get them to make an appointment. You could suggest going with them. It's often very helpful to have a friend or family member there.
An accurate, timely diagnosis gives you the best chance to adjust, prepare and plan for the future. It will also mean you can get the treatments and support you need.
Seeing your GP
Memory problems are not only caused by dementia. They can also be caused by:
- depression or anxiety
- alcohol or drugs
- other health problems – such as hormonal disturbances or nutritional deficiencies
Your GP can carry out some simple checks to try to find out the cause. They can then refer you to a specialist for an assessment, if necessary.
Your GP will ask about your concerns and what you or your family have noticed.
They'll also check other aspects of your health and carry out a physical examination.
They may also organise some blood tests and ask about any medicines you're taking. This will help to rule out other possible causes of your symptoms.
You will answer some questions and carry out some tasks. These include:
- pen and paper tasks
These help to find out how different areas of your brain are functioning.
This can help your GP decide if you need to see a specialist for more assessments.
Referral to a specialist
If your GP is unsure about whether you have Alzheimer's disease, they may refer you to a specialist, such as:
- a psychiatrist
- an elderly care physician - sometimes called a geriatrician
- a neurologist - brain and nervous system expert
There's no simple and reliable test for diagnosing Alzheimer's disease. The staff will listen to the concerns of you and your family about your memory or thinking.
They'll assess your memory and other areas of mental ability. If necessary, they'll arrange more tests to rule out other conditions.
Mental ability tests
A specialist will usually assess your mental abilities. For example, memory or thinking, using tests known as cognitive assessments.
Most cognitive assessments involve a series of pen and paper tests and questions.
These tests assess different mental abilities, including:
- short and long-term memory
- concentration and attention span
- language and communication skills
- awareness of time and place (orientation)
- abilities related to vision (visuospatial abilities)
Test scores may be affected by your level of education.
For example, someone who cannot read or write very well may have a lower score. But they may not have Alzheimer's disease.
Someone with a higher level of education may achieve a higher score but still have dementia.
Scores are also affected by age. The brain shrinks with age and processing time becomes slower.
These tests can help doctors work out what's happening. But they take a lot of other things into account in making a diagnosis.
You may need a brain scan. This is to rule out other causes and look for possible signs of damage.
This could be a CT scan or MRI scan.
Some scans look at brain function and particular protein deposits. But these are usually restricted for use in clinical trials.
It may take several tests over many months before you get a diagnosis. Sometimes it may be quicker.
It takes time to adapt to a diagnosis of dementia, for both you and your family.
You might find it helpful to seek information and plan for the future. Others may need a longer period to process the news.
It might help to talk things through with family and friends. You can also get support from the Alzheimer Society of Ireland.