Critter Corner: How Does a Doctor Test for Alzheimer’s Disease?

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Dear Angel,

My husband is becoming quite forgetful lately, and wants to get tested for Alzheimer’s Disease since he has a history of it in his family. He is becoming anxious about the testing, because he isn’t sure what’s involved. What types of tests do doctors conduct to determine if someone has Alzheimer’s?

Thanks!
Tess Tinghim

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Dear Tess,

Below are details about some of the tests used to detect Alzheimer’s, and how they work:

Mini-Mental State Exam

One of the first tests a doctor might perform to diagnose Alzheimer’s is called a mini-mental state exam (MMSE). The doctor will ask the patient to:

•answer questions such as what is the current date and location of the doctor’s office

•identify objects in the room

•recall a short list of words presented at the beginning of the exam

The top score on an MMSE is 30. A score of 12 or lower suggests severe dementia and the likelihood of Alzheimer’s, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

Mini-Cog

The mini-cog is another simple written test that evaluates a person’s brain function. This test has two parts. In the first part, the patient is given a list of three common objects. Several minutes later, the doctor asks them to repeat the list.

For the second part, the doctor asks the patient to draw a clockface with the numbers one to 12 in their correct places. The test taker is then asked to draw hands on the clock to show the time selected by the examiner.

Medical Evaluation

Your husband’s doctor will need your complete medical history to diagnose Alzheimer’s. He or she will also want to know if anyone in your family has Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia.

An Alzheimer’s screening also requires a physical examination that includes checking your husband’s blood pressure and other health information. He’ll need to tell the doctor about the medications he takes and answer questions about his alcohol use, diet, and exercise.

Neurological Exam

Testing for Alzheimer’s may include an evaluation of your husband’s brain and nervous system. That means the doctor will check his reflexes, eye movement, and speech. He or she will also look for signs of brain injury, stroke, and conditions such as Parkinson’s disease.

His doctor will want to rule out all other illnesses that affect brain health before making a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.

MRI and CT

One way a doctor can eliminate other causes of Alzheimer’s symptoms is through brain imaging. Computerized tomography (CT) scans and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) give doctors a good look at the brain. These tests can’t definitively diagnose Alzheimer’s, but they can help a doctor see if a tumor or another condition is causing memory or thinking problems.

PET Scans

It is helpful for doctors to observe brain activity because people with Alzheimer’s have less brain cell activity in certain parts of the brain. This can be done with a brain imaging technology called positron emission tomography (PET). One type of PET measures how much blood sugar is used by brain cells. Brain cells affected by Alzheimer’s use less blood sugar.

Molecular Imaging

Scans that look for specific molecules in the brain are also used for Alzheimer’s. A special compound that’s injected into a patient travels to the brain where it detects molecules that show Alzheimer’s may be developing.

The Alzheimer’s Association reports that molecular imaging may one day help doctors determine how the disease is progressing. It also could aid in delivering medications to the right locations in the brain.

Biomarkers

Doctors are learning more about biomarkers, genes, or chemicals in a person’s body fluids that signal the presence of a disease. Biomarkers of certain proteins in brain and spinal fluid, called tau and beta-amyloid, may be especially helpful in diagnosing Alzheimer’s. Doctors can sample that fluid by doing a spinal tap procedure.

Good luck with your husband’s tests.

Angel

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About Renee Eder

Renee Eder is the Director of Public Relations for the Farr Law Firm, and gives the voice to the Critters of Critter Corner. Renee’s poodle, Penny, is an official comfort dog who she and her children bring to visit with seniors who are in the early stages of dementia at a local senior home once a month.

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