Care Partner Information Sheet

Dementia - Testing for Dementia

In the early stages of dementia, many people often don't know there is anything wrong. Many think memory problems are a normal part of aging. Or, they might realize there is a problem with their memory, but not tell anyone about it.

If you know someone having memory problems, they should get tested. Testing can help the person to know if it really is dementia, or something else. For example, memory problems might be caused by something else. Examples are depression, medicine side effects, thyroid problems, vitamin deficiencies, or alcohol use. Those problems can sometimes be fixed. Dementia cannot.

No single test can prove that a person has dementia. Rather, a complete exam is needed. This can be done by many kinds of health care providers"in primary care, geriatrics, neurology, psychiatry, or psychology.

Home Tests for Dementia

Many dementia tests are available online or by mail. These tests are not recommended. Home screening tests can never take the place of an in-person medical exam.

What Happens When Getting Checked for Dementia?

The doctor will ask about any current or past illnesses. These might include high blood pressure, diabetes, strokes, head injury, and others. They will also ask about medicines being taken. And, they may ask about diet, exercise, smoking, and use of alcohol. It is important to tell the doctor if other family members have had dementia.

Next, the doctor will check if the person is thinking clearly. They may ask the patient to remember things, draw things, explain things, or solve simple problems. They will also find out if the person knows where they are and what day it is.

After that, the doctor will do a physical exam.  They will check the heart, lungs, and other things. Usually, they also do a blood test.

The person may also get brain scans (pictures of the brain), called CT or MRI.  These pictures can help show if the brain looks like dementia is present, or if some other condition is causing memory problems. Sometimes there may be need for an extra evaluation by certain types of specialists.

Picking the Right Provider

Not all health care providers see many patients with dementia.  Some are not comfortable telling patients they have dementia.  In fact, less than half of seniors diagnosed with dementia, or their families, report actually being told they have dementia.  So, before making an appointment to see someone about memory problems, ask how often they see patients who are getting checked for dementia.

How to Choose a Doctor for Dementia Testing

  • Call your local Area Agency on Aging to find out who to see, or...
  • Talk to the Alzheimer's Association.
  • Ask if the provider takes the person's insurance. Without insurance, dementia checks can cost a lot!
  • If the person has a doctor they like, call them first. Ask if the doctor is comfortable testing patients for dementia. If not, ask for a referral.
  • Many hospitals have memory clinics where people can get checked for dementia.  These clinics have doctors who specialize in dementia.
  • Prepare for the visit:
    ·     Bring a list of medical problems and how long they have been present.
    ·     Bring a copy of the person's health history.
    ·     Bring a list of medications, vitamins, and herbal remedies.

Testing and Diagnosis Can Bring Better Quality of Life

Testing for dementia can be stressful. But early testing and knowing about dementia can help patients and their loved ones live higher quality lives. By knowing and planning ahead, they can avoid unnecessary problems, and live how they choose.

Useful Websites

Written by: Barry D Weiss, MD, University of Arizona College of Medicine