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Health A-Z

Medical Content Created by the Faculty of the
Harvard Medical School

Diagnosis

A person with Alzheimer's often doesn't recognize that there is a problem. Usually family members and close friends notice the forgetfulness and changes in behavior.

Rather than trying to convince a person that he or she has a problem, arrange for a doctor's appointment. At least one family member or close friend should accompany the patient.

There is no definitive test for Alzheimer's disease. The doctor will diagnose AD by taking a thorough medical history and performing a physical examination. This will include a neurological examination and a mental status exam.

The doctor will want to know about:

  • Memory lapses

  • Difficulty using language

  • Problems learning and retaining new information

  • Difficulty following directions or handling complex tasks

  • Episodes of poor judgment or unusual or risky behaviors

More of this information is likely to be provided by family members and friends.

The doctor will do a neurological examination to check the brain and nerves. He or she will do a brief mental status examination. This includes visual, writing and memory testing.

The doctor will check for other illnesses that can cause symptoms that resemble Alzheimer's disease. Testing may include blood tests, such as measurements of the levels of vitamin B12 and thyroid hormone. Very low levels of vitamin B12 and a very underactive thyroid can cause problems with thinking and memory. These problems can improve and even go away with treatment.

If the doctor's simple testing of thinking and memory indicate that there may be a problem, more detailed testing of brain function can be done. This is called neuropsychological testing.

In some cases, the doctor may order a brain imaging study. A brain study can rule out other reasons for the symptoms. Brain imaging studies cannot diagnose Alzheimer's with certainty. However, together with the doctor's examination, and the blood and neuropsychological testing, they can help the doctor make a diagnosis.

The doctor may refer you to a specialist to confirm the diagnosis. Specialists include neurologists, geriatricians and geriatric psychiatrists.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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