Alzheimer's disease - Diagnosis 

Diagnosing Alzheimer's disease 

See your GP if you are worried about your memory or think you may have dementia.

If you're worried about someone else, you should encourage them to make an appointment and perhaps suggest that you go along with them.

An early diagnosis gives you the best chance to prepare and plan for the future, as well as receive any treatment that may help.

Seeing your GP

Memory problems are not just caused by dementia – they can also be caused by depression, stress, medications or other health problems. Read about common causes of memory loss.

Your GP will be able to carry out some simple checks to try to find out what the cause may be. They can refer you to a specialist for further tests if necessary.

Your GP will ask about your symptoms and other aspects of your health, and will carry out a physical examination. They may also organise some blood tests and ask about any medication you are taking to rule out other possible causes of your symptoms.

You may also be asked some questions or be asked to carry out some simple activities to assess any problems with your memory or your ability to think clearly. This can help your GP decide if you need to be referred to a specialist for further assessment.

Referral to a specialist

Your GP may refer you to a specialist to help with your diagnosis. For example, you may be referred to:

  • a clinical psychologist – a healthcare professional who specialises in the assessment and treatment of mental health conditions
  • a psychiatrist – a qualified medical doctor who has further training in treating mental health conditions
  • a neurologist – a specialist in treating conditions that affect the nervous system (the brain and spinal cord)

The specialist may be based in a memory clinic alongside other professionals who are experts in diagnosing, caring for and advising people with dementia and their families.

There is no simple and reliable test for diagnosing Alzheimer's disease, but your specialist can help assess your memory and thinking skills, and arrange further tests to rule out other conditions.

Assessing your mental abilities 

A specialist will usually assess your mental abilities using a special questionnaire. 

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.

The MMSE is not used to diagnose Alzheimer's disease, but it is useful for assessing the level of mental impairment that a person with the condition may have. This helps specialists make decisions about treatment and whether further 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

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, whereas for others it simply confirms what had been suspected for a long time.

If you've just had a diagnosis of dementia, you're probably feeling numb, scared and unable to take everything in, so give yourself a little time to adjust. It might help to talk things through with family and friends.

Once the initial feelings have passed, it's important to think about moving forward and creating an action plan for the future. Dementia is a progressive illness, so the sooner you take care of legal, financial and healthcare matters, the better.

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

Page last reviewed: 26/03/2014

Next review due: 26/03/2016

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Benefits of an early dementia diagnosis

A dementia diagnosis can be a big shock, but the earlier you are diagnosed the sooner treatment can start and plans can be made