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How Is Dementia Diagnosed?
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Doctors employ a number of strategies to diagnose dementia. It is important that they rule out any treatable conditions, such as depression, normal pressure hydrocephalus, or vitamin B12 deficiency, which can cause similar symptoms.
Early, accurate diagnosis of dementia is important for patients and their families because it allows early treatment of symptoms. For people with AD or other progressive dementias, early diagnosis may allow them to plan for the future while they can still help to make decisions. These people also may benefit from drug treatment.
The "gold standard" for diagnosing dementia, autopsy, does not help the patient or caregivers. Therefore, doctors have devised a number of techniques to help identify dementia with reasonable accuracy while the patient is still alive.
Doctors often begin their examination of a patient suspected of having dementia by asking questions about the patient's history. For example, they may ask how and when symptoms developed and about the patient's overall medical condition. They also may try to evaluate the patient's emotional state, although patients with dementia often may be unaware of or in denial about how their disease is affecting them. Family members also may deny the existence of the disease because they do not want to accept the diagnosis and because, at least in the beginning, AD and other forms of dementia can resemble normal aging. Therefore additional steps are necessary to confirm or rule out a diagnosis of dementia.
A physical examination can help rule out treatable causes of dementia and identify signs of stroke or other disorders that can contribute to dementia. It can also identify signs of other illnesses, such as heart disease or kidney failure, that can overlap with dementia. If a patient is taking medications that may be causing or contributing to his or her symptoms, the doctor may suggest stopping or replacing some medications to see if the symptoms go away.
Doctors will perform a neurological examination, looking at balance, sensory function, reflexes, and other functions, to identify signs of conditions - for example movement disorders or stroke - that may affect the patient's diagnosis or are treatable with drugs.
Cognitive and neuropsychological tests
Doctors use tests that measure memory, language skills, math skills, and other abilities related to mental functioning to help them diagnose a patient's condition accurately. For example, people with AD often show changes in so-called executive functions (such as problem-solving), memory, and the ability to perform once-automatic tasks.
Doctors often use a test called the Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE) to assess cognitive skills in people with suspected dementia. This test examines orientation, memory, and attention, as well as the ability to name objects, follow verbal and written commands, write a sentence spontaneously, and copy a complex shape. Doctors also use a variety of other tests and rating scales to identify specific types of cognitive problems and abilities.
Doctors may use brain scans to identify strokes, tumors, or other problems that can cause dementia. Also, cortical atrophy -degeneration of the brain's cortex (outer layer) - is common in many forms of dementia and may be visible on a brain scan. The brain's cortex normally appears very wrinkled, with ridges of tissue (called gyri) separated by "valleys" called sulci. In individuals with cortical atrophy, the progressive loss of neurons causes the ridges to become thinner and the sulci to grow wider. As brain cells die, the ventricles (or fluid-filled cavities in the middle of the brain) expand to fill the available space, becoming much larger than normal. Brain scans also can identify changes in the brain's structure and function that suggest AD.
The most common types of brain scans are computed tomographic (CT) scans and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Doctors frequently request a CT scan of the brain when they are examining a patient with suspected dementia. These scans, which use X-rays to detect brain structures, can show evidence of brain atrophy, strokes and transient ischemic attacks (TIAs), changes to the blood vessels, and other problems such as hydrocephalus and subdural hematomas. MRI scans use magnetic fields and focused radio waves to detect hydrogen atoms in tissues within the body. They can detect the same problems as CT scans but they are better for identifying certain conditions, such as brain atrophy and damage from small TIAs.
Doctors also may use electroencephalograms (EEGs) in people with suspected dementia. In an EEG, electrodes are placed on the scalp over several parts of the brain in order to detect and record patterns of electrical activity and check for abnormalities. This electrical activity can indicate cognitive dysfunction in part or all of the brain. Many patients with moderately severe to severe AD have abnormal EEGs. An EEG may also be used to detect seizures, which occur in some AD patients as well as in many other disorders. EEGs also can help diagnose CJD.
Several other types of brain scans allow researchers to watch the brain as it functions. These scans, called functional brain imaging, are not often used as diagnostic tools, but they are important in research and they may ultimately help identify people with dementia earlier than is currently possible. Functional brain scans include functional MRI (fMRI), single photon-emission computed tomography (SPECT), positron emission tomography (PET), and magnetoencephalography (MEG). fMRI uses radio waves and a strong magnetic field to measure the metabolic changes that take place in active parts of the brain. SPECT shows the distribution of blood in the brain, which generally increases with brain activity. PET scans can detect changes in glucose metabolism, oxygen metabolism, and blood flow, all of which can reveal abnormalities of brain function. MEG shows the electromagnetic fields produced by the brain's neuronal activity.
Doctors may use a variety of laboratory tests to help diagnose dementia and/or rule out other conditions, such as kidney failure, that can contribute to symptoms. A partial list of these tests includes a complete blood count, blood glucose test, urinalysis, drug and alcohol tests (toxicology screen), cerebrospinal fluid analysis (to rule out specific infections that can affect the brain), and analysis of thyroid and thyroid-stimulating hormone levels. A doctor will order only the tests that he or she feels are necessary and/or likely to improve the accuracy of a diagnosis.
A psychiatric evaluation may be obtained to determine if depression or another psychiatric disorder may be causing or contributing to a person's symptoms.
Testing people before symptoms begin to determine if they will develop dementia is not possible in most cases. However, in disorders such as Huntington's where a known gene defect is clearly linked to the risk of the disease, a genetic test can help identify people who are likely to develop the disease. Since this type of genetic information can be devastating, people should carefully consider whether they want to undergo such testing.
Researchers are examining whether a series of simple cognitive tests, such as matching words with pictures, can predict who will develop dementia. One study suggested that a combination of a verbal learning test and an odor-identification test can help identify AD before symptoms become obvious. Other studies are looking at whether memory tests and brain scans can be useful indicators of future dementia.
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