What is Alzheimer’s? Patients often attribute the symptoms of Alzheimer’s to simply “getting old,” or in most cases, they may be unaware of the changes in their behavior. When a patient does approach their doctor about memory problems, the doctor must sift through all the evidence to determine if Alzheimer’s disease is present, or if it is one of the numerous conditions that produce similar symptoms. Despite the fact that doctors must rule in Alzheimer’s after they have ruled everything else out, diagnoses of the disease are consider to be close to 90% accurate.
The symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease are generally including progressive forgetfulness that eventually comes to interfere with everyday life. An Alzheimer’s patient, in their beginning stages, will commonly exhibit what appear to be normal age-related mistakes - a forgotten name, face, and location. Quite often, they find problems spelling some words or doing math questions. As the condition continues and worsens, the forgetfulness begins to interfere with daily, day-to-day routines and, in some cases, may drive the patient to become anxious or aggressive. Eventually, there is almost always a need for total care as the victim not only loses memories of who s/he was, but also deteriorates until not even knowing the body’s simplest of functions.
The first step a doctor will take in diagnosing disease Alzheimer’s is to take a full patient history and profile. They will need to take into account the patient’s medical history, any relevant family medical history, and any other medical problems the patient is experiencing or for which they are receiving treatment. Next, the physician will interview the patient in detail about the problem that brought them to the office – the level of memory loss, the types of things that are being forgotten, and any other behavioral changes that have accompanied the onset of the memory loss. The doctor will also need to ask questions to determine a patient’s mental state, as diseases such as depression can cause many symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s. To complete the picture, the doctor may also put the patient through a Mini Mental State exam – a short test of problem solving skills, attention span, and counting skills – that can propose to the doctor if there is damage in any particular area of the brain.
The next is the physical exam. The physical exam will include everything from vital signs and weight to reflexes and eyesight. Any abnormalities the doctor finds during the physical exam can lead to uncovering a disorder with symptoms that mirrors Alzheimer’s disease, thereby allowing the physician to rule out Alzheimer’s. The absence of any abnormalities during the physical exam can, on the other hand, signal to the doctor that a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s should not be taken off the table.
A series of lab tests can also be useful in diagnosing disease Alzheimer’s. Computed Tomography (CT) and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans both allow doctors to see a “picture” of the brain that can flag up other causes of memory loss, such as stroke, or show atrophy or structural changes in the brain that are present in advanced Alzheimer’s. An electroencephalogram (EEG) analyzes electric activity in the brain and can help a doctor exam various brain functions, such as memory, emotion, and language. EEGs are also useful for ruling out non-Alzheimer’s related memory problems. An electrocardiogram (ECG/EKG) also measures electrical activity, this time in the heart, and is also used to rule out other disorders. A chest X-Ray may also be ordered if a heart/lung problem that might be disrupting blood flow to the brain is suspected.
Neurological testing is the last tool available to doctors in making a determination about disease Alzheimer’s. This testing involves patient interview, a series of memory, problem solving and language tests, and an evaluation of emotional health. Neurological testing can identify a sequence of behavioral and/or psychiatric disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease.
The diagnosis process for Alzheimer’s disease is long and involves a certain amount of trial and error, but it is important to get it right. If another cause for memory loss is uncovered, like depression or hypothyroidism, than these diseases can be treated. If Alzheimer’s is diagnosed, the earlier it is detected, the better the outlook becomes. Though Alzheimer’s disease cannot be cured, some of its behavioral symptoms can be treated, and with early detection, a patient can take Alzheimer’s medications that helps improve their brain functioning. This kind of treatment allows an Alzheimer’s patient to remain active, at home, and functioning in their lives for longer than if the disease had been allowed to develop unchecked.
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