How Does a Doctor Make an Alzheimer's Diagnosis?

David Roeltgen, MD Health Guide
  • For most patients who have Alzheimer’s disease and for families who have loved ones with this disease, research progress in Alzheimer’s disease appears to advance very slowly. Alzheimer described a disease 100 years ago. For the next 70 years little more could be said about the disease than that written by Alzheimer at the turn of the last century. In the last 30 years, researchers have learned much about the disease. We are now better able to make the diagnosis, distinguish it from other causes of dementia and intervene with medications that have some benefit.

    How do doctors make the diagnosis and are there any improvements in this ability on the horizon?
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    Doctors make the diagnosis primarily by taking a history from the patient and family and doing a neurological examination, with a special focus on thinking and memory. Although this does not appear to be very sophisticated it does allow the physician to be approximately 80% accurate. This level of accuracy is best obtained when the physician knows about different types of dementia, has a family member available as well as the patient and has the time to talk to and examine the patient in detail.

    Currently, there are no tests for Alzheimer’s disease that are more accurate than the history and neurological examination. However, research is currently actively involved in developing tests that have potential for providing relatively accurate diagnosis in a patient who is suspected of having Alzheimer’s disease. It is likely that such tests will become available before the large population of baby boomers reach ages at which Alzheimer’s disease is common.

    What is dementia, and what is the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s disease?
    Dementia is any disorder of brain function, that causes impairment of memory, impairment of some other thinking ability (such as speech, drawing, understanding, personality, reading and spelling) and day-to-day function.

    Alzheimer’s disease, is one form of dementia, and is the most common form. Currently, it is the only form of dementia for which there are FDA approved treatments. Distinguishing Alzheimer’s disease from other forms of dementia is one of the things that a doctor does when attempting to make a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.

    The current medications used in Alzheimer’s disease provide some benefit for the impairments present. Unfortunately, the amount of benefit is usually small and the disease still continues to progress. Currently, many research studies are examining treatments that may help reverse the disease or delay the progression.

    The advances outlined here began a few decades ago. However, it has only been in recent years that they have begun to approach the point at which patients and families will realize their benefits. Specific advances seem to appear infrequently and without great impact. However, this area of science, as is the case in all areas of science, advances tend to be small and cumulative.

    What is encouraging, is that in the field of Alzheimer’s disease these small and cumulative advances are occurring more and more rapidly, increasing our understanding of the disease. With that understanding the likelihood of diagnoses and treatments that are new and significant become greater each day.
Published On: January 22, 2007