Diagnosing Alzheimer's disease 

It's best to see your GP if you're worried about your memory or think you may have dementia.

If you're worried about someone else, encourage them to make an appointment and perhaps suggest going with them. It's often very helpful having a friend or family member there.

A timely diagnosis gives you the best chance to adjust, prepare and plan for the future, as well as accessing treatments and support that may help.

Seeing your GP

Memory problems aren't just caused by dementia – they can also be caused by:

  • depression or anxiety
  • stress
  • medications
  • alcohol or drugs
  • other health problems  such as hormonal disturbances or nutritional deficiencies

Read about common causes of memory loss.

Your GP can carry out some simple checks to try to find out what the cause may be. They can then refer you to a specialist for assessment, if necessary.

Your GP will ask about your concerns and what you or your family have noticed. They'll also check other aspects of your health, and carry out a physical examination. They may also organise some blood tests and ask about any medication you're taking to rule out other possible causes of your symptoms.

You'll usually be asked some questions and carry out some memory, thinking, and pen and paper tasks to check how different areas of your brain are functioning. This can help your GP decide if you need to be referred to a specialist for more assessments.

Referral to a specialist

Your GP may refer you to a specialist memory assessment service to help with your diagnosis. Memory clinics are staffed by professionals from multiple disciplines who are experts in diagnosing, caring for and advising people with dementia and their families.

Memory clinic staff can include the following, depending on your local area:

  • a nurse  usually a trained mental health nurse who specialises in diagnosing and caring for people with dementia
  • a psychologist – a healthcare professional who specialises in the assessment and treatment of mental health conditions
  • a psychiatrist – a qualified medical doctor who has training in treating mental health conditions
  • a neurologist – a specialist in treating conditions that affect the nervous system (the brain and spinal cord)
  • a geriatrician  a physician with specialist training in the care of older people
  • a social worker  a trained member of staff able to advise and assist with accessing social services within the local area
  • an occupational therapist  a member of staff with specialist skills in assessing and supporting people with dementia and their families with adjusting to disabilities

There's no simple and reliable test for diagnosing Alzheimer's disease, but the staff will listen to the concerns of both you and your family about your memory or thinking. They will assess your skills and arrange more tests to rule out other conditions.

Assessing your mental abilities 

A specialist will usually assess your mental abilities using a special series of questions.

One widely used test is the mini mental state examination (MMSE). This involves being asked to carry out activities such as memorising a short list of objects correctly and identifying the current day of the week, month and year. Different memory clinics may also use other, longer tests. 

The MMSE isn't used to diagnose Alzheimer's disease, but it's useful to initially assess areas of difficulty that a person with the condition may have. This helps specialists to make decisions about treatment and whether more tests are necessary.

Tests

To rule out other possible causes of your symptoms and look for possible signs of damage caused by Alzheimer's disease, your specialist may recommend having a brain scan. This could be a:

Read more about tests for diagnosing dementia

Some specialist centres offer scans which look at brain function and particular protein deposits. However, at the moment, these are mostly experimental and only used if the diagnosis is unclear. 

After diagnosis

It may take several appointments and tests over months, or even years, before a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease can be confirmed.

For some people, a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease is a huge shock, especially as it's not unusual for people with dementia to have less awareness of their difficulties.

For others, the diagnosis can be very important in helping them and their families to make sense of symptoms they've been concerned about for a long time.

If you've just been given a diagnosis of dementia, you may be feeling numb, scared and unable to take everything in. It may be helpful to have the diagnosis explained again to help make sense of the idea over time. It might help to talk things through with family and friends, and to seek support from the Alzheimer's Society.

It takes time to adapt to a diagnosis of dementia, for both you and your family. Some people find it helpful to seek information and plan for the future, but others may need a longer period to process the news.

However, as dementia is a progressive illness, the weeks to months after a diagnosis is often a good time to think about legal, financial and healthcare matters for the future.

Read more about what to do if you've just been diagnosed with dementia.

Page last reviewed: 17/03/2016

Next review due: 17/03/2018