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Diagnosis - Alzheimer's disease

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 can be 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 treatment and support you need.

Seeing your GP

Memory problems are not only caused by Alzheimer's.

They can also be caused by:

  • depression or anxiety
  • stress
  • medicines
  • 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.

They will ask you some questions to check your memory and thinking. They will also ask you to do a pen and paper task.

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 whether you have Alzheimer's disease, they may refer you to a specialist such as:

  • a psychiatrist
  • an elderly care doctor - sometimes called a geriatrician
  • a neurologist - a brain and nervous system expert

There is no simple and reliable test for diagnosing Alzheimer's disease.

The specialist will listen to the concerns of you and your family about your memory or thinking.

They will assess your memory and other areas of mental ability. If necessary, they will arrange more tests to rule out other conditions.

Mental ability tests

A specialist will usually assess your mental abilities. For example, your memory or thinking ability. They do this using tests known as cognitive assessments.

Most cognitive assessments involve a series of tests and questions.

These will assess your:

  • short-term 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 or how willing you are that day.

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 Alzheimer's.

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. They will also take a lot of other things into account in making a diagnosis.

Other tests

You may need a brain scan. This is to rule out other causes and look for signs of damage.

This could be a CT scan or MRI scan.

After diagnosis

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 Alzheimer's, for both you and your family.

You might find it helpful to find information and plan for the future. Others may need more time 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.

Content supplied by the NHS and adapted for Ireland by the HSE

Page last reviewed: 1 September 2022
Next review due: 1 September 2025