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How Is Dementia Diagnosed? A Geriatric Doctor Explains

how is dementia diagnosed

What it takes to get a dementia diagnosis

So many families ask “how is dementia diagnosed?”

If you’re concerned that your older adult might have Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, it’s important to know how to get an accurate diagnosis.

This is essential because dementia-like symptoms could be caused by other reversible health conditions. An accurate diagnosis is needed for proper treatment.

Knowing what a doctor should evaluate helps you protect your older adult in case their doctor jumps to a diagnosis without going through the full exam and tests.

Dr. Leslie Kernisan, an experienced geriatric doctor , wrote an article to explain how doctors typically evaluate and diagnose problems with memory, thinking, or judgment.

She describes the basic diagnostic tests, what types of information are needed, and how long the process takes.

Here, we summarize key points from her article:

  1. 5 key symptoms of dementia

  2. 5 steps doctors take to diagnose dementia

  3. Why dementia can’t be diagnosed in a single doctor’s appointment

  4. What to do if you feel the doctor may be jumping to conclusions

  5. How to prepare if your older adult needs to be evaluated for Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.


5 key symptoms of dementia

Dr. Kernisan describes the 5 issues that people with dementia typically experience:

  1. Difficulty with one or more types of mental function, like learning, memory, language, judgement

  2. Problems that are a change compared to the person’s usual abilities

  3. Problems that make it difficult for them to manage everyday life responsibilities, like work or family

  4. Problems that aren’t caused by another mental disorder, like depression

5 steps doctors take to diagnose dementia

Doctors typically go through 5 areas of evaluation to figure out whether or not someone has dementia. The doctor needs to check each area and document what they find.

1. Difficulty with mental functions This is usually evaluated with a combination of an office-based cognitive test and finding out about real-world problems by talking with their patient and people close to them.

2. Decline from previous level of ability This can be more difficult for a doctor to determine, so they need to talk with people who know the patient well to understand their previous abilities versus what they can do today.

For example, if a former accountant can no longer do basic math, that’s a decline from their previous ability.

3. Impairment of daily life function This can also be tough for doctors to evaluate on their own.

So, the doctor will ask people close to their patient about what types of help the person is getting in their daily life and what problems family members have noticed.

4. Reversible causes of cognitive impairment Certain conditions can cause temporary dementia-like symptoms.

Delirium can seem like Alzheimer’s or dementia and is usually caused by illness, infections, or a hospitalization and can last from weeks to months.

Other medical problems that interfere with thinking skills include medication side effects, thyroid problems, electrolyte imbalances, B12 deficiency, substance abuse, and other treatable health conditions.

5. Other mental disorders Depression is a common mental health issue for seniors and can sometimes be confused with dementia symptoms.

And sometimes, they could have depression and dementia at the same time.

It’s also important to consider the person’s mental health history. Paranoia or delusions could be related to mental health conditions like schizophrenia.


Dementia cannot be diagnosed in a single visit

The 5 areas a doctor must evaluate to give a proper dementia diagnosis are complex and require a lot of information gathering and lab tests.

So it’s highly unlikely that any doctor could make an accurate diagnosis in one office visit.

What to do if a doctor jumps to a diagnosis in a single visit

Unfortunately, some doctors do jump quickly to a dementia diagnosis in only one visit. Even worse, they don’t properly document what led to their decision.

If this happens, you may want to seek a second opinion from a doctor who is willing and able to do more thorough evaluation and testing.

Yes, there is a chance that your older adults symptoms could mean that they have dementia.

That’s why an accurate diagnosis is essential for proper treatment.

How to prepare for a dementia evaluation

If you’re concerned that your older adult could have Alzheimer’s or dementia, Dr. Kernisan provides a free tip sheet of the types of information you should gather to help the doctor make a better and faster diagnosis.

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By DailyCaring Editorial Team

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