Apr 14, 2012

How Alzheimer’s is Diagnosed?

Normally referred to as "very severe cognitive decline" or "late-stage Alzheimer’s," this is when the patient is completely unable to care for himself or herself.

By Kevin Clarke

These days, many people suffer from the debilitating effects of Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s is a neurologically degenerative condition, which leads to loss of memory, as well as other intellectual facilities.

While there is no known cure for those who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, there are ways to help patients deal with some of the symptoms.

Subscribe to the Alzheimer's Reading Room

Diagnosing Alzheimer’s Disease

In order to successfully diagnose Alzheimer’s, the patient is required to undergo several different forms of testing. These tests normally take the form of a physical examination, neuropsychological tests and noting the patient’s most recent mental, as well as behavioural symptoms. This is normally to ensure that the patient is indeed suffering from Alzheimer’s, because there can often be other reasons for a person to lose their cognitive abilities. These can include tumors, anxiety, thyroid problems, depression, strokes or even a possible vitamin deficiency.

Neuropsychological Testing

Neuropsychological testing involves three different types of tests, which are normally done in order to accurately diagnose Alzheimer’s. These tests involve CT scans, PET scans and MRI scans. The PET scan examines brain function, while the MRI and CT scans examine and assess the size of the brain.

An additional test, which is sometimes performed, is an EEG (electroencephalogram), which helps to measure electrical activity within the brain. While these tests may take several hours to perform, it is important that they be done in order to obtain a correct diagnosis for the patient. Because each of these scans is used to view the brain in different ways, they are an important part of the diagnosing process.

Medical History of the Patient

When the patient is being tested and assessed, it is important for the doctor to compile a complete medical history of the patient in question. Questions will be asked regarding any existing medical conditions the patient may have, prior conditions which they may have had in the past and whether they are currently using medication for any existing conditions. The medical history will also include information about family members who may have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, as well as finding out what level of difficulty the patient has when performing everyday tasks. All of these questions play an important part in making an accurate diagnosis.

Various Medical Tests Are Done

In addition to the CT, PET and MRI scans, various other medical tests are normally done in order to make an accurate diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. These tests may include urine analysis, various forms of blood testing and, in some cases, the spinal fluid will also be tested. While many people may think that these various forms of testing may be overly invasive on the patient, they are, in fact, a very necessary part of the diagnosing process. They are usually done as a form of elimination process to ensure that the patient’s symptoms aren’t being caused by something other than Alzheimer’s.

Stages of Alzheimer’s

While many people may think that Alzheimer’s affects everyone in the same way, this is not true. There are, in fact, seven various stages of this disease. Some patients progress through all seven stages rapidly; the average time frame for this decline ranges between eight and ten years. During this time, the patient may pass through some of the stages at a faster rate than others. Each case of Alzheimer’s is unique and no two people decline at the same rate over the same time period.

Stages One to Two

During the first and second stages of Alzheimer’s, the patient will experience little to no impairment. The patient may experience occasional memory lapses during this time. Occasional memory lapses may include things like misplacing keys or forgetting names. It is important to remember though, that once a person reaches the age of 65, it is normal for them to suffer occasional memory loss, so this may not always be an indication of Alzheimer’s.

Stages Three to Four

During these stages, the patient normally experiences mild to moderate cognitive decline. Other symptoms may include anxiety, moodiness and depression. The patient will experience difficulty remembering new information and may start to withdraw from social activities that they used to enjoy. Tasks such as shopping alone, or even basic domestic chores, may become a challenge for the patient at this stage.

Stages Five to Six

By now, the patient will be experiencing more severe cognitive decline. They will not be able to remember names or dates. By this time, the patient will also start to need assistance with daily tasks, such as personal grooming and dressing. They will also start wandering off if they are left unsupervised for any length of time. The patient may also start to experience hallucinations and require the services of a dedicated caregiver.

Stage Seven

Normally referred to as "very severe cognitive decline" or "late-stage Alzheimer’s," this is when the patient is completely unable to care for himself or herself. They will lose their ability to communicate verbally with those around them and experience difficulty when swallowing food or drinks. By now, the patient will also spend most of their day asleep because of the fact that they are normally bedridden. A caregiver will now be required on a 24-hour basis.

Like any other condition, the patient will benefit greatly if the Alzheimer’s is diagnosed as early as possible. This will ensure that various care options can be explored while the patient is still capable of making decisions in this regard. It is important to involve the patient in the decision-making process as soon as possible, before cognitive decline becomes too serious.

Kevin Clarke is a Pharmacist and advocate for patient safety and education. He recently started a consumer information site at www.drugsdb.com. Drugsdb is a consumer health website that provides information on many drug side effects and interactions.

More Insight and Advice from the Alzheimer's Reading Room

Original content Bob DeMarco, the Alzheimer's Reading Room