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Scientists and physicians are still working on ways to accurately diagnose Alzheimer’s disease. Although the signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease like forgetfulness, wandering and the inability to recognize loved ones are well known, they are not considered a clinical diagnosis. As it stands now, that can only be obtained after death. However, that should not stop you from consulting a physician should you worry that your loved one may be exhibiting the early signs of Alzheimer's. Here are the three things you need to know about early Alzheimer’s diagnosis:

1. Interviews and medical tests will be conducted: The diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease depends upon collecting information through an interview with your loved one. The physician will ask him or her, as well as a member of your family (preferably the person closest to your loved one), about overall health, changes in behavior or personality traits, the ability to carry out daily activities and past medical history. The physician may also conduct memory tests, and use tools that assess problem-solving capabilities, attention span, counting and language skills.

Medical tests will be conducted, including blood and urine tests in order to rule out other causes of the symptoms. For example, if the cause of the symptom is vascular dementia instead of Alzheimer’s, clinical tests will detect narrowing of the arteries, which can be treated to improve the symptoms of dementia. Brain scans will also be conducted. Depending upon the physician’s preference, these may include a CT scan, MRI or PET scan. These cannot detect Alzheimer’s disease but they can rule out other causes of the symptoms.

2. It’s not an exact science. Although this information will help the physician to make a diagnosis, there is no exact method by which a clinician can make a definitive diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. It is challenging because the symptoms of the disease can be seen, although there are no definitive signs it can be seen in the brain through medical imaging. If someone suffers a heart attack, imaging can see the damage in the heart. This is not the case with Alzheimer’s disease.

In some cases, it may be helpful to get a second opinion. A neurologist that is experienced in Alzheimer’s can review the records and give you a diagnosis. Then you will have more information to work with.

3. Early diagnosis results in early treatment. Although there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease and its progression cannot be stopped, it can be slowed. Some medications have proven effective in delaying memory and cognitive decline. Early diagnosis can help the person who has been diagnosed and their family prepare for the future. The National Institute on Aging1 suggests that the following plans be made after a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease has been made:

  • Plan for the future when your loved one will be unable to make a decision independently.
  • Take care of financial and legal matters.
  • Address potential safety issues in the home.
  • Learn about supportive, specialized living arrangements outside the home.
  • Develop support networks for the person who has been diagnosed, family members and caregivers.

A diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease can be devastating for everyone involved. It can also be helpful. If family members know that a loved one is suffering from a progressive disease, plans can be made for appropriate Alzheimer’s and dementia caregiving strategies. Gather as much information as possible and learn everything you can about the disease. Knowledge is power, in the case of Alzheimer’s disease and caring for a parent with dementia, it can help to surround your loved one with the structure, support, and life assistance that he or she will need to navigate the journey ahead. Alzheimer's is a form of dementia, we have great articles on the early signs of dementia on our blog, too!

[1] National Institute on Aging

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