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Diagnostic Tests for Dementia

If a form of dementia is suspected, the doctor will order a series of diagnostic testings to be performed that may include the following:

Medical History

  • General information (name, age, occupation, etc.)
  • The symptoms that brought you in
  • Present and past health problems and medications
  • Diseases within the family

Physical Exam

  • Height
  • Weight
  • Vitals (blood pressure, pulse and respiration rate)
  • An examination of body parts (e.g., liver, kidney, thyroid)

Neurological Exams

This is an evaluation of the nervous system:

  • Brain
  • Spinal cord
  • Neurons

The doctor will ask questions and have your loved one perform simple tasks to evaluate:

  • coordination
  • reflexes
  • eye movements
  • speech
  • sensations (smell, touch, sound, etc.).

Mental Status Exam

The most commonly administered exam is the Mini-Mental State Exam, which assesses several areas of mental wellness:

  1. orientation – being aware of what day or year it is, knowing what town you are in or who the president is
  2. retention/registration – repeating the names of 3 objects
  3. attention – counting backwards or figuring out a simple word problem
  4. recall – recalling the names of 3 objects after a short time
  5. language – answering questions, repeating phrases, naming objects
  6. motor skills – copying a simple picture/drawing

Similar tests include the 6-question Blessed Orientation Memory Concentration test (evaluates awareness of time, short term memory, and thought) and the Clock Drawing Task, which involves drawing the face of a clock with all the numbers and the hands to set at a certain time.

Brain Imaging/Scans

The doctor may also order brain "scans," which are basically pictures of the brain. There may be no evidence of early dementia in these scans, but later in the disease process, changes in the brain may be seen. The doctor may also use these tests to rule out another possible cause for your loved one’s symptoms. These tests are often used if vascular dementia is suspected. Types of brain scans include:

  • Computerized tomography (CT) scan
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scan

Laboratory Exam

A blood and urine sample will be taken to:

  • Determine blood count
  • Rule out vitamin or nutrient deficiency
  • Evaluate thyroid hormone levels (low levels may cause dementia symptoms)
  • Rule out other diseases such as infections and diabetes

Resources

Diagnostic Procedures

Source: Alzheimer's Association
Description: This flow chart shows the steps in making a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease and the diagnostic procedures used. Different causes of memory loss are also discussed, including Alzheimer's, depression, medication-induced dementia, endocrine and nutritional disorders, and others.

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Early Diagnosis of Dementia

Source: American Academy of Family Physicians
Description: This detailed medical article discusses aspects of making a diagnosis of dementia, including a guide to differential diagnosis in the form of a flow chart. The article is written for physicians.

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