Receiving a diagnosis
If someone is concerned about having Alzheimer’s disease (or any other form of dementia) they should see the GP as soon as possible. It’s a good idea to take someone else along to any appointments, to give support and listen to what is said.
Receiving an early diagnosis of dementia is helpful for lots of reasons:
You will have an explanation for the symptoms and you will be able to get treatment, advice and support to prepare for the future and plan ahead.
There is no single test for Alzheimer’s disease. The GP will first need to
look into whether the person has other conditions that can have similar symptoms, such as infections, vitamin and thyroid deficiencies (which can be assessed from a blood test), depression and side effects of medication.
The doctor will also talk to the person, and someone who knows them well (where possible), about their medical history and how their symptoms are affecting their life. The GP or a practice nurse may ask the person to do some tests of their mental abilities.
The GP will make a diagnosis at this stage if they’re able to.
Often, however, they will need to refer the person to a specialist for a diagnosis, which can mean a wait of a few weeks. The specialist could be a psychiatrist who specialises in the mental health of older people – often based in a memory service facility.
This specialist will assess the person’s symptoms, and how they developed, in more detail. With Alzheimer’s disease the person’s memory will usually have become worse over several months. A family member may be more aware of these changes than the person themselves.
The person will also do a test to assess their memory, thinking and other mental abilities. When someone with Alzheimer’s is tested, they will often forget things quite quickly. Often they won’t be able to recall them a few minutes later, even when they’re prompted.
The person may have a brain scan, which can show whether certain changes have taken place in the brain. There are a number of different types of brain scan. The most widely used are CT (computerised tomography) and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). A brain scan can show whether the person has another condition that can have similar symptoms to Alzheimer’s, such as stroke, tumour or a build-up of fluid inside the brain. If the scan shows the person has dementia, it may also help to show whether this is Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia. In a person with Alzheimer’s disease, a brain scan may show that the hippocampus and the brain tissue around it have shrunk.
The doctor who tells someone they have Alzheimer’s disease should do so sensitively and clearly by speaking directly to the person and usually also to a carer, family member or friend close to them. This should include advice for the person with dementia about what happens next.