Dementia Diagnosis in Family Members

Some memory problems are normal with age but others aren’t. When family members notice dementia-like symptoms such as memory loss and cognitive decline in a loved one, the family member(s) should accompany the loved one to the doctor to seek a diagnosis.

Family Members Must Help with Diagnosing Dementia

If the person with dementia symptoms is having memory and cognitive problems that are noticeable to others, he or she will not be able to accurately report symptoms to the doctor, nor will he or she be able to accurately report or follow upon the doctor’s advice. The physician must allow family member(s) to participate.

Other medical problems can cause symptoms of dementia, so it is important to rule those out.

  • Some, such as hypothyroidism, can be treated and the cognitive difficulties can be reversed.
  • Others, such as brain tumors or stroke are serious health problems, that must be treated.
  • Dementia-like symptoms might be side-effects from recently prescribed medication.

Benefits of Diagnosing Dementia Early

If dementia is diagnosed early enough, some medications can help. Although there is no cure for dementia, medication is effective in slowing down the progress of the disease. Sometimes it can prevent the severity of certain symptoms. This is why early diagnosis of dementia is beneficial.

How Dementia is Diagnosed

The general physician should be consulted. The physician will collect the detailed history. He will also perform a physical exam, including blood tests. The Mini-Mental State Examination, which is a short question and answer test, will probably be performed. Other written questionnaires may be administered. Head imaging may be requested by the doctor. At a later stage, a referral to a specialist may be made.

Brain MRI and CT Scans

Brain scans are computerized pictures of the brain that help identify dementia disease-related abnormalities. They can be taken using different medical equipment and techniques. Usually, doctors prescribe MRI or CT scans.

MRI stands for magnetic resonance imaging. A brain MRI scan is obtained through the use of a large magnet. The procedure is safe, painless and takes about one hour. The person lies inside a machine similar to a small tunnel, and pictures of the brain are taken from different angles.

This diagnostic tool can help spot dementia disease in the early stages. In fact, a study published in the journal Neurology suggests that MRI scans have the potential to detect the illness many years before it manifests when the person shows no signs of cognitive and memory loss.

CT stands for computerized tomography. A brain CT scan is obtained using X-rays. Like for MRI scans, the patient lies inside a tunnel-shaped machine where pictures of the brains are taken from various angles. The whole procedure is painless and takes about half an hour. However, since CT uses X-rays, it is not as safe as MRI. For this reason, the number of scans is usually kept to a minimum, so as to limit exposure to radiation.

Cognitive Assessment

Some cognitive tests consist of questions aimed at establishing whether the person can remember well-known events and facts. For example, they may be asked to name the current president, the currency used in their country or the four seasons. They may also be presented with a list and asked to recall and repeat as many items as possible after a few minutes. Other cognitive tests involve tasks that help assess the person’s language, reasoning, counting and problem-solving skills, as well as their attention span and mood.

The most commonly used cognitive test is the Mini-Mental State Exam (MMSE). Another frequently used is the Clock-Drawing test. Other tests that are easier and quicker to administer are under study, including the TYM (Test Your Memory) test, recently developed by researchers of the Department of Neurology of Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge, UK. The TYM test takes only five minutes to complete and, according to findings published in the British Medical Journal, can detect dementia in 93 percent of cases, versus 52 percent identified with the MMSE test.

Laboratory Tests

These include blood, urine and, in some cases, tissues and fluids tests. Some of these help rule out other diseases associated with memory loss and confusion. Others can help determine the presence of genes that are considered risk factors for dementia. There is also a test, which allows detecting dementia by measuring blood levels of certain proteins called biomarkers. Not all these tests are routinely prescribed.

Your First Doctor Visit as an Alzheimer’s Patient

After the diagnosis, the doctor will help you, or the person in your care, make important decisions and deal with problems as they arise. It is therefore important that caregiver should accompany patient on every visit to the doctor.

The patient and caregiver may want to know about:

  • Tests results–what do they show exactly?
  • How far into the dementia patient is.
  • Drugs that will be needed–their benefits and possible side effects.
  • Alternative treatment options.
  • Strategies that can help to cope with memory loss.
  • How dementia will progress–which skills are patient going to lose? Which ones are patient going to retain?
  • Helpful resources–booklets, leaflets and so on.
  • Organizations and groups patient can approach for support and advice.

To help the doctor develop a care plan that best suits patient’s specific situation and needs, it is also important that doctor knows:

  • medications, supplements or herbal remedies that patient is taking;
  • changes in health, weight or behavior patient have recently noticed; and
  • anything that may concern patient, no matter how small.

Follow the doctor’s instructions carefully. Take a little notebook with you and write these down, or ask a relative or friend to do this for you.

How to Emotionally Support a Spouse, Parent, or Family Member Diagnosed With Dementia

Certainly, a diagnosis of dementia will be emotionally difficult for everyone involved.

  • Allowing the person with dementia to express his or her feelings and being supportive can help.
  • Helping the person with dementia articulate his or her wishes for future care and assuring him or her that family members will be there to care for, help and support the patient can be comforting.
  • If the patient is in denial about the diagnosis and is not ready to face the reality of the diagnosis, it is important not to push. Sometimes denial is necessary for people to cope with difficult issues.
  • However, it is important that the family members not be in denial. They must face the fact that dementia is a progressive illness that cannot be cured and plan accordingly.
  • Read more about how to care for dementia patients here.

Two Things to do When a Family Member Receives a Diagnosis of Dementia

  1. It is important for elder legal and financial matters to be taken care of while the person with dementia is still lucid. This is a good time for all elders in the household to do this if it has not been done already.
  2. Taking prescribed medication and following up with the doctor will help determine if the diagnosis of the dementia type was correct. It can also slow the disease.

With a diagnosis of dementia, one or more of the well family members will become a caregiver. Learning as much as possible about the disease will help. Joining a caregiver support group can help the caregiver express his or her feelings of loss, fear, and sadness about the dementia diagnosis.