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Alzheimer's Disease

Alzheimer's Disease - Stealing your golden years

Alzheimer's Disease, generally limited to the elder population, is the leading cause of dementia, and characterized by symptoms that includes loss of memory, judgment and reasoning, difficulty with normal daily functions, changes in personality or mood, and atypical behavior.  

In these cases, Alzheimer's Disease is not always the cause.  There are many causes for the above symptoms, many that are treatable.  But if you have noticed these symptoms in yourself, or in someone close to you, it is important to visit your family doctor for a thorough assessment to find the cause.

Some of the conditions that cause dementia, that may be treatable, include:

  • depression
  • thyroid or heart disease
  • infections
  • drug interactions
  • alcohol abuse
  • not enough to eat or drink

Why Diagnosis?

Finding out the causes of the symptoms can help individuals:

  • understand the source of symptoms
  • get the proper care, treatment and support
  • plan for the future

The Diagnosis

There is currently no single test that can tell if a person has Alzheimer's Disease. The diagnosis is made through a systematic assessment which eliminates other possible causes. Until the time when there is a conclusive test, doctors will continue to use the words "probable Alzheimer's Disease." Don't let these words fool you; doctors making this diagnosis are accurate 80 to 90 per cent of the time.

Making the diagnosis can take time. The diagnosis can be made in a family doctor's office, a memory clinic, a hospital or in the community. The doctor may or may not feel that the person needs to see a number of health-care professionals to help make the diagnosis. 

These may include a psychologist, psychiatrist, neurologist, geriatrician, nurse, social worker or occupational therapist. They will look for problems with the person's memory, reasoning ability, language and judgment, and how these affect day-to-day function.

The process involves:

Examining Medical History

Both the individual and family members or friends will be asked questions regarding the person's symptoms now and in the past. There will be questions about past illnesses and about family medical and psychiatric history.

Determining Mental Condition

This part of the process tests the person's sense of time and place as well as the ability to remember, express him/herself and do simple calculations. It may involve exercises such as recalling words and objects, drawing and spelling, and questions such as "What year is it?"

Thorough Physical

To help rule out other causes, a physical exam will be done. The doctor will look for heart, lung, liver, kidney or thyroid problems that may be causing the symptoms. To evaluate whether other nervous system disorders are causing the symptoms, the doctor will test muscle tone and strength, co-ordination, eye movement, speech and sensation.


A number of tests will be done. Detailed blood work will be ordered to help detect problems such as anemia, diabetes, thyroid problems or infection that might be causing the symptoms.

Other tests such as X-rays and EEG's (electroencephalogram) may be used to determine the source of the problem. In some centers, scans may be used. These may be recommended, but are not always necessary for a diagnosis:

  • CT (computerized tomography) scan and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) take images of the brain.
  • SPECT (single proton emission computed tomography) shows how blood is circulating to the brain.
  • PET (positive electron tomography) shows how the different areas of the brain respond during certain activities such as reading and talking.

Psychiatric and Psychological Evaluations

A psychiatric evaluation may be helpful in ruling out other illnesses such as depression which can cause memory loss similar to Alzheimer Disease. Neuro-psychological testing can evaluate memory, reasoning, writing, etc.


Preparing for the Assessment

On the day of the appointment, it will be useful to have the following information on hand. Writing this information down ahead of time can be helpful.

Things you will be asked

  • What symptoms have been noticed?
  • When did they first appear?
  • How have the symptoms changed over time?
  • What other medical conditions does the person have?
  • What medications are currently being taken (both prescription and over-the-counter)?
  • Is there a family history of Alzheimer Disease, "senility," "hardening of the arteries," neurological or psychiatric conditions?

Things you may want to ask

  • Which tests will be performed? What is involved in the tests?
  • How long will the tests take?
  • How long will it take to learn the results?
  • How do we learn the results? Who will be involved?

Tips to Make Things Easier

  • Make the appointment for the person.
  • Help with transportation.
  • Share this information with other family members.
  • Offer to accompany the person to appointments and tests.
  • Help prepare information for the first appointment.
  • Appreciate that this can be an unsettling time for the person and provide emotional support.
  • Have patience; it can take a long period of time to arrive at a diagnosis.

What if the Diagnosis is Alzheimer's Disease

You may want to ask:

  • What does the diagnosis mean?
  • What can be expected over time?
  • What care will be needed and is available, now and in the future?
  • What treatment is available? What are the risks and benefits?
  • What resources are available in the community to help?
  • Are there any experimental drug trials to participate in?

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