Dementia, like ‘cancer’, is one of those words that has almost become taboo because of the fear it strikes within us. Sadly, it is often this fear that prevents us from seeking early diagnosis when we suspect something may be wrong, which can result in a speedier progression of the disease. Being proactive and seeking an early diagnosis is the first step in conquering your dementia demons, as it can help ensure you are getting the treatment you need as soon as possible.
In this article we’ll be covering the methods health care providers use to diagnose dementia, and why these tests are required.
What is dementia?
Dementia is an umbrella term that is used to describe a range of diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, which impact a person’s memory function and cognitive processes.
What are the symptoms of dementia?
As the mind is a complex thing, so too can be the symptoms of dementia. While the early signs of the condition can vary from person to person, the symptoms listed below are the most common:
- Memory loss that starts to impact day to day life
- Changes in your ability to plan or problem solve
- Struggles in completing familiar tasks
- Confusion, particularly surrounding times and places
- The trouble with spatial awareness
- Vision problems
- Development of problems with writing or speaking
- Misplacing objects or struggles in retracing steps
- Reduction in judgment, making poor decisions
- Becoming withdrawn
- Changes in personality or mood
How is dementia diagnosed?
Due to its sometimes complex nature, diagnosis of dementia can take several tests before a diagnosis is confirmed.
When you visit your doctor with concerns surrounding memory loss or dementia in general, the first thing they will do will be to ask about your symptoms, your family history, and your medical history, as well as discussing any medications you are currently taking. This history will help the doctor to assess the likelihood of dementia being the root cause of your problem, and will also help to rule out any conditions such as thyroid problems, which can also manifest as problems with memory.
Therefore, before you go to your doctor, prepare this type of information in advance, writing them down if need be.
To help determine the extent of the problems, your doctor may choose to administer mental ability tests. These tests will typically center around the two aspects of brain function that dementia affects the most: memory and thinking. The tests are known as cognitive assessments, and are usually first done by your doctor, but can also be undertaken by a specialist. While these tests don’t actually diagnose dementia, they can instead give a strong indication of memory deficiencies, as well as cognitive impairment.
The test most commonly used is known as GPCOG, which stands for the ‘General Practitioner Assessment of Cognition’. Most tests such as this are simple, and require only pen and paper, and are designed to help assess:
- Short-term memory
- Long-term memory
- Language skills
- Communication skills
- Orientation skills
Your doctor will also likely request blood tests to be taken. This does not diagnose dementia but helps to rule out other health conditions which could alternatively be causing the cognition and memory impairment that you are facing. These blood tests will typically check your liver function, kidney function, thyroid function, diabetes status, and both b12 and folate levels. In addition to blood tests, if your doctor suspects an infection might be at play or wishes to be duly thorough, then they may also ask for a urine sample to be given.
A brain scan will often be the final test you’ll need to undertake before being officially diagnosed with dementia. A scan is undertaken when your symptoms, history, and mental cognition tests have not indicated an issue, and your blood test has ruled out any other potential cause. As with the other tests on this list, a brain scan cannot solely diagnose dementia but can be a useful tool to discover what is happening within the brain itself.
Brain scans are also used to look for evidence of other conditions that could account for the symptoms you are feeling, such as a stroke or a brain tumor. There are two types of scan your doctor may recommend to you, an MRI scan or a CT scan. Each type of scan can be useful for confirming suspicions of different types of dementia, as well as other potential issues if these two are suspected.
An MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scan is a scan that uses a combination of powerful magnetic fields and radio waves to provide doctors with a detailed look at the of the inside of your body. The scanner itself looks like a large tube which you lie inside as the scan takes place.
In regards to dementia tests, an MRI scan can be used to:
- Help confirm a dementia diagnosis
- Help confirm the type of dementia
- Give a detailed assessment of blood vessel damage (in regards to vascular dementia)
- Show changes in the brain, such as shrinkage (usually in regards to frontotemporal dementia and alzheimers)
A CT (computerized tomography) scan, which can also be referred to as a CAT scan, looks very similar to an MRI scan. A CT scan uses x-rays and computer technology to create a detailed picture of the inside your body. For a dementia diagnosis, while a CT scan cannot provide information regarding the overall structure of your brain, a CT scan can be helpful for ruling out a stroke or brain tumor.
A customized diagnosis
Depending on your own unique medical circumstances, you may also need to have further scans or tests to help confirm your specific diagnosis. This is often the case with more uncommon forms of dementia, for which these extra tests can help give medical professionals a clearer insight to your needs.
Scans such as a SPECT and PET scan can be used, most commonly when other methods of scanning have proven inconclusive. An EEG may also be taken if your doctor deems it useful to do so.
As with most illnesses, early diagnosis of dementia can help your doctor develop a more effective treatment plan that can improve the prognosis of the patient. If you suspect that you or a loved one may be in the early stages of dementia, speak with your doctor today to start the process of obtaining a diagnosis.