Types of Tests for Alzheimer's

Instructor: Sharon Linde

Sharon has a Masters of Science in Mathematics

There is no single test for Alzheimer's, so how do medical professionals diagnose this form of dementia that interferes with brain function and memory? This lesson goes over the signs to look for, and how doctors diagnose this disease.

Early Signs of Alzheimer's

Becky is very concerned about her retired father, Willard. He has always been very handy - besides having a long career as an engineer, he also liked to do 'fun side projects', like renovate houses or disassemble and rebuild tractors. In his latest trip to visit her, Willard has seemed very confused and has been unable to get much done on the painting project he volunteered to do.

Becky also finds out her father has recently made some uncharacteristic mistakes on his taxes. While this wouldn't be an issue for most people, Willard has proudly done taxes for himself and family members 'better than tax professionals' for decades.

Because of these issues, Becky decides to look for information regarding Alzheimer's, a progressive brain disease that has no cure. She thought there was a medical test her father could take, but soon learns there is none. She does find out, however, that there are a number of signs that indicate the potential for Alzheimer's, or other forms of dementia:

  • memory loss, especially short term
  • difficulty following directions or working with numbers
  • familiar tasks becoming harder to complete
  • forgetting the day, date, or why they are where they are
  • mood changes
  • withdrawal from social situations
  • decreased judgement
  • misplacing something and not being able to retrace steps
  • conversations becoming more difficult
  • difficulty processing visual images

No Single Test for Alzheimer's

Although her father's symptoms could be caused by Alzheimer's, Becky soon learns that his symptoms could be caused by many forms of dementia, a general term for loss of memory and cognitive abilities that make daily life difficult.

The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer's, accounting for 60 to 80 percent of all dementia cases. The initial symptoms of Alzheimer's are mild and mostly involve an inability to remember new information. As the disease progresses, the impact on daily life increases, eventually resulting in simple daily tasks being too difficult for the patient to do themselves.

Tests During Alzheimer's Investigation

Becky wonders if there is a test her or Willard's doctor can give to her father to see what is going on with his brain. She is disappointed to find out that there is no single test for this disease. What medical professionals do before they diagnose dementia or Alzheimer's is give the patient a complete medical assessment. Besides looking at the patient's complete medical history, they conduct mental, physical, and neurological tests. They also rule out other possible causes of the symptoms - of which there are over 50. By looking at all of this information, trained general practitioner doctors are able to diagnose this disease with 90% accuracy, with specialists being even more accurate.

Other tests that might happen during an Alzheimer's investigation include:

  • Genetic testing

The largest risk factor for developing Alzheimer's is age. Even having an identical twin with the disease only increases your chance of developing it by 25% over the average population. Having said that, there are some genetic tests to see if patients have genes that increase the risk of getting the disease. These cases only make up a few percent of all dementia cases.

  • self-administered test

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