Getting an early and accurate diagnosis of Alzheimer’s can make a positive difference in the quality of the life of the affected person and their family. When cognitive impairment is mild to moderate, people receive immediate medical interventions, leading to better management of the disease.
Current Challenges with Early Diagnosis of Alzheimer’s
For many years now, scientists have continued to study Alzheimer’s and changes in the brain. Unfortunately, little is known about what causes it or how to cure it. But one of the mysteries that remain unanswered even after several studies is when Alzheimer’s starts.
Experts discovered that a person could sustain brain damage for many years before mild symptoms surface. It means you can have Alzheimer’s without knowing it, despite being symptom-free for ten years or more. Inside, toxic changes are slowly eating away at your brain.
Another challenge with early diagnosis is the resemblance of symptoms to other psychological disorders, like depression. Common depressive signs, such as feelings of sadness, loss of interest in previously fun activities, and trouble concentrating, are also early signs of Alzheimer's. It’s easy to mistake Alzheimer’s with depression due to shared symptoms.
How Is Alzheimer's Disease Diagnosed?
Currently, there’s no single test to detect Alzheimer’s, especially in its earliest stage. It is often diagnosed during the mid-stage when memory problems are evident and begin to impact a person’s daily life.
The clinical diagnosis for a brain disorder like Alzheimer’s usually includes looking at the following factors:
- 1. Medical History
The doctor will ask questions about your loved one’s medical history to evaluate their past and current health and physical functions. There’s a slight chance that your aging relative might forget crucial details about their medical history or what medications they take. In this case, you can supplement essential information, such as when symptoms first appear or how quickly they progressed.
Other health-related information that your doctor will review includes:
- History of Alzheimer’s or dementia in the family.
- Other medical problems that increase the risk of dementia such as depression, stroke, HIV infection, head injury, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases. These illnesses cause dementia symptoms.
- The medications that your senior parent is taking. Some drugs can raise the risk of cognitive decline and induce dementia-like symptoms. Anticholinergics used to treat respiratory disorders, asthma, depression, and more can elevate the risk of dementia by almost 50%.
The doctor will perform a thorough physical exam to measure the risk factors for dementia and determine the conditions that cause the symptoms. Here are some ways they do this:
- Mental Status Test
A mental status test is a brief test of memory and other cognitive functions. It’s part of a complete neurological exam. Your loved one may be asked to follow simple instructions, do easy calculations, remember a list of words, or draw a clock face with the hands pointing to a specific time. Some doctors may use computer-based tests.
- Brain Imaging
The doctor might suggest a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computerized tomography (CT) scan for brain tumors, brain injury or stroke, fluid buildup, or other abnormalities.
- Laboratory Tests
The doctor may also recommend routine lab tests, like urine and blood tests, to check the blood count, immunity, kidney, liver, and thyroid functions. These tests can help rule out the possibility of a different health condition that causes dementia-like symptoms. They can also help confirm comorbidities on top of Alzheimer’s.
What To Do After Diagnosis
Feeling lost, scared, and confused is normal when your family receives a diagnosis. You can take as much time as you want to accept things. Yet, remember that it’s right after diagnosis that your loved one needs your care and support.
So what should you do after your loved one is diagnosed? Here are some suggestions:
- Educate Yourself About the Disease.
To better understand your loved one’s health circumstances following the diagnosis, learn about Alzheimer’s and dementia and how you can help. Various resources such as Alzheimer’s.gov, Alzheimer’s Association, and Alzheimer’s Foundation of America aare available for family caregivers.
- Help Your Loved One Stay Healthy.
Regular physical activity makes your loved one feel better and preserves the brain, so it works longer. Brisk walking, dancing, and yoga are good options. Combine that with wholesome meal options that include vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, to nourish the brain.
- Schedule Regular Medical Checkups.
Regular checkups are vital for seniors with comorbidities. Your doctor can give advice on how to manage co-existing conditions. Moreover, you also get insights into the disease progression with frequent checkups, helping you prepare for worse situations.
- Help Plan Finances and Manage Legal Affairs.
Consult an attorney to help your loved one prepare or update their will, financial power of attorney, health care power of attorney, and other legal concerns.
- Consider Enrolling Them In a Clinical Trial.
Clinical trials give health experts valuable information about the disease, allowing them to develop better medical interventions. Talk with your senior parent and your doctor about the possibility of enrolling them in a clinical trial. You can find an Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center here.
- Get Support From a Professional Caregiver.
When aging in place is possible, getting in-home care services can help them remain at home with you and the grandchildren for as long as possible. When symptoms are severe, consider moving them into memory care.
There’s still no cure for Alzheimer’s or dementia, but medications and positive lifestyle changes can tremendously help the family tread through the challenges ahead.
The doctor may prescribe medications, like donepezil, to help ease the cognitive and behavioral symptoms. In June 2021, the FDA approved another medication sold under the brand name Aduhelm (Aducanumab-avwa) that promises to help remove amyloid deposits in the brain and slow down the disease progression.
Besides medications, physical exercise, social activities, and other brain-stimulating games can help delay the damage to the brain. Equally important are getting enough sleep, proper nutrition, and appropriate health management for those with comorbidities.
Treatment for Alzheimer’s is personalized and varies on different factors, including:
- The person’s age, medical history, and overall health
- The severity of the disease
- The person’s adaptability to specific procedures, therapies, or medications
Importance of Early Diagnosis and Intervention
Early and accurate diagnosis is beneficial for many reasons. For one, your doctor can determine which medications, therapies, and interventions work best. Starting treatment at the early stage of Alzheimer’s can also help preserve cognitive functioning. This allows you to buy time to plan for the future, take care of legal and financial matters, and locate a suitable senior living community.
If you see subtle signs of Alzheimer’s, don’t disregard them. Visit your doctor to confirm if it’s dementia or age-related symptoms.
Syed has years of experience dealing with people, understanding their needs, and helping them find solutions to their problems.
As a Certified Senior Advisor (CSA), Certified Dementia Practitioner (CDP), Certified Montessori Dementia Care Professional (CMDCP), Syed is committed to working closely with Senior and their family knowing what is it like for individuals facing a challenging time, at times groping in dark trying to figure what is the appropriate next step or care level for their unique situation.
Syed and Senex Memory Advisors are fully committed to working closely with families in creating a personalized, step-by-step process memory care plan at zero cost.