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Diagnosing Alzheimer's: An interview with a Mayo Clinic specialist
To diagnose Alzheimer's disease, doctors conduct tests to assess memory impairment and other thinking skills, judge functional abilities, and identify behavior changes. They also perform a series of tests to rule out other possible causes of impairment.By Mayo Clinic staff
In this interview, Eric Tangalos, M.D., a primary care physician and co-director for education at the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn., explains the diagnostic process when a person is experiencing memory problems or other impairments in thinking skills. An accurate diagnosis is a critical first step that helps ensure appropriate treatment, care, family education and plans for the future.
How can people recognize the early signs of Alzheimer's?
The Alzheimer's Association has a list of 10 warning signs that can help you recognize early indications:
- Memory loss that disrupts daily life
- Challenges in planning or solving problems
- Difficulty completing familiar tasks at home, at work or at leisure
- Confusion with time or place
- Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships
- New problems with words in speaking or writing
- Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps
- Decreased or poor judgment
- Withdrawal from work or social activities
- Changes in mood and personality
An important factor is that problems affect how well a person functions in everyday life. For example, it's easy to forget where you've parked your car in a parking lot. That's happened to all of us, but most of us eventually find our cars. People with Alzheimer's disease may not only forget the car's location but also lose the ability to adjust and solve the problem of the lost car.
When warning signs of Alzheimer's disease appear, it's important for a person to get a prompt and accurate diagnosis.
How does a doctor make a diagnosis of Alzheimer's?
The primary tools we use to diagnose Alzheimer's disease are tests we can perform in the office or clinic. Additional laboratory tests or brain-imaging tests also provide useful information for diagnosis, including ruling out other diseases that cause similar symptoms. Our goal is to answer the following questions:
- Does a person have an impairment in memory or other thinking skills?
- Does a person exhibit changes in personality or behaviors?
- What is the degree of impairment or change?
- How do the problems affect the person's ability to function?
- What is the cause of the symptoms?
What diseases are you trying to rule out?
We check the thyroid, to rule out problems there. And, in many cases, symptoms of depression can be mistaken for Alzheimer's — and vice versa. We also routinely look for vitamin B-12 deficiency.
And we always make sure that the person is generally healthy and doesn't have some other serious medical problem that would complicate the diagnosis. A lot of older people have other medical problems that just make things worse — such as heart disease, high blood pressure, strokes, diabetes, kidney disease, lung disease or any combination of these.
How do you assess memory problems and other symptoms?
We conduct relatively simple, objective tests in which we ask people to answer questions or perform tasks associated with memory, abstract thinking, problem solving, language usage and related skills that we collectively refer to as cognitive skills. Scores on such tests enable us to quantify with some reliability a person's degree of cognitive impairment.
- Assessing daily living skills. We use questionnaires to judge a person's ability to perform activities of daily living (ADLs). These tasks include such things as using a telephone, preparing meals, taking medications and handling finances. A family member, friend or caregiver may be asked to help with the questionnaire. An ADL score helps us quantify how well a person functions.
- Neuropsychological tests. These tests, can help us identify and judge the severity of behaviors that are commonly observed in people with Alzheimer's disease. They may also demonstrate that a person is experiencing depression or other mental health problems that may cause similar symptoms.
- Talking with friends and family. We may also have more general questions, particularly for a family member or friend of the person with cognitive symptoms. We're looking for things that don't fit with the individual's former level of function. The family member or friend can often explain how cognitive skills, functional abilities and behaviors have changed over time.
This series of clinical assessments and a general physical exam often provide enough information to make a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease. But when the diagnosis isn't clear, we depend on additional tests.Next page
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- Tangalos EG (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. Sept. 14, 2010.
- 10 signs of Alzheimer's. Alzheimer's Association. http://www.alz.org/alzheimers_disease_10_signs_of_alzheimers.asp?type=more_information. Accessed Sept. 11, 2010.
- Grabowski TJ. Clinical manifestations and diagnosis of Alzheimer disease. http://www.uptodate.com/home/index.html. Accessed Sept. 8, 2010.
- Cummings JL, et al. Guidelines for managing Alzheimer's disease: Part I. Assessment. American Family Physician. 2002;65:2263.
- Hort J, et al. EFNS guidelines for the diagnosis and management of Alzheimer's disease. European Journal of Neurology. 2010;17:1468.
- Knopman DS, et al. Practice parameter: Diagnosis of dementia (an evidence-based review). Report of the Quality Standards Subcommittee of the American Academy of Neurology. Neurology. 2001;56:1143.