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About Alzheimer's & Dementia

Warning signs Importance of getting a diagnosis

Video: Diagnosis FAQ with Dr. Eric Smith

Video: Diagnosis FAQ with Dr. Eric Smith

Importance of getting a diagnosis

If you or a loved one are experiencing memory loss, having difficulty making decisions, or getting more confused than before, you may wonder if it’s part of normal aging or if it could be dementia. While some memory loss and difficulty recalling facts are normal parts of aging, these things should not cause difficulty in daily life. Frequent problems with memory, decision-making and communicating with others as well as major changes in mood and behaviour may indicate dementia.

Is memory loss a normal part of aging?

As we age, it is normal to forget something such as a person's name or a scheduled appointment and then recall it later - but if you are not able to recall it at a later time, it could be due to dementia. Similarly, while it is normal to be confused sometimes about how to use unfamiliar settings on the T.V. or microwave, it is not typical to have difficulty performing daily tasks that were once very familiar - such as making a cup of coffee. 

See your doctor

If you are concerned about possible signs of dementia in a family member, or if you are experiencing symptoms yourself, it is important to consult a physician. Once the presence of dementia has been confirmed, it is helpful to have a complete diagnosis regarding the type of dementia. This might require a referral to a specialist such as a neurologist, geriatrician, or a geriatric psychiatrist for a more in-depth examination.

Regardless of the cause of these symptoms, there are clear benefits to getting a proper diagnosis and seeking the advice of your physician. Medications used to treat many types of dementia are more effective in the earlier stages of the disease. This is especially true for Alzheimer’s disease; the medications currently available can help control symptoms if started early. The course, progression, and treatment of these diseases will vary depending on the type of dementia diagnosed.

It’s also important to note that dementia-like symptoms may be caused by other conditions. Some people experience symptoms due to correctable causes such as Vitamin B12 deficiency, thyroid disease, depression and others.

If you need to find a family physician:

  • By telephone, dial 811 to contact Health Link
  • Use the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta Find a Physician online tool (tick the "Accepting New Patients" box) or contact them by telephone at 780-423-4764
  • Use Primary Care Networks of Calgary and Area's Find a Doctor online tool, or fill out their online form (please note there is usually a waitlist for the form-based service)

Other benefits to timely diagnosis

A timely diagnosis also helps you plan for future care and organize financial and legal affairs (such as your will, personal directive and power-of-attorney). This will enable you or your family member to have some autonomy in making decisions. Getting a diagnosis also gives you access to support, care and resources available in the community and you may benefit from ongoing monitoring, all of which could help improve quality of life.

Diagnostic procedure

There is no single test for Alzheimer's disease or any related dementia. A diagnosis is usually made by excluding other causes that present with similar symptoms. The diagnosis is made based on a person’s history, physical assessments, blood tests, imaging and cognitive assessment. The physician will first take a detailed history from the person with symptoms/ concerns about dementia and from family members, if available. This will be followed by a detailed physical examination and blood tests to rule out conditions such as infections, vitamin deficiency, thyroid problems and the side effects of medication.

Following the initial blood tests, the physician may refer the person to a specialist such as a neurologist, a physician in geriatric medicine or a general psychiatrist or a geriatric psychiatrist. The person's memory will be assessed, initially with questions about recent events and past memories. Their memory and thinking skills may also be assessed in detail by a psychologist. A brain scan may be necessary to collect information about the changes taking place in the person's brain. There are several types of scans, including computerised tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) scans.

A CT scan helps identify conditions such as a tumour, fluid in the brain, shrinkage of the brain or vascular changes to a small extent. The MRI of the brain shows these conditions in greater detail, as well as changes associated with tiny strokes in the brain. PET scans detail oxygen and glucose utilization in different parts of the brain, which would indicate disease in those parts of the brain.

The diagnosis of the type of dementia is usually made on the basis of the results obtained from all of these investigations.

Video: Diagnosis FAQ with Dr. Eric Smith