Alzheimer’s Disease: Diagnosis and Treatment


Alzheimer’s is a maddening disease for many reasons. Unlike other health conditions that affect so many people, there’s currently no known cause for the condition, and there’s no single test for Alzheimer’s either, which makes diagnosing it difficult. And without a cure, treatment may help slow the progression of the disease, but can’t stop it. Still, doctors haven’t given up hope and are continually researching new ways to diagnose the condition with more accuracy and find effective ways to treat it.

How do doctors diagnose Alzheimer’s?

There isn’t one test that determines if a person has Alzheimer’s. In fact, it’s impossible to diagnose with 100 percent accuracy until after death, when the brain can be examined in an autopsy.

That said, doctors can run a series of tests to determine if cognitive decline and memory loss appears to be on par with typical aging or if it’s a sign of Alzheimer’s. Keep in mind: In many cases, memory loss has nothing to do with Alzheimer’s and may be a side effect or symptom of other treatable conditions, like depression, thyroid problems, or vitamin deficiencies.

To test if a person may have Alzheimer’s, doctors can perform some or all of the following tests:

Physical exam

Why it matters: Tests of balance, coordination, and reflexes can help gauge general neurological function.

Blood test

Why it matters: Lab tests are less to confirm Alzheimer’s disease and more to rule out other causes, including chronic disorders, such as high cholesterol or diabetes, or potential vitamin deficiencies (like low B12).

Cognitive tests

Why it matters: Memory checks can help doctors assess how patients rate on a host of recall and thinking tests that will allow them to determine if someone is operating on par with people of the same age with a similar health profile.

Brain scans

Why it matters: Depending on the type of scan used, doctors can see if other issues may be to blame for memory loss (like, say, a stroke) or if they see brain cell death or plaques more in line with Alzheimer’s.

  • PET: Detects if the brain shows signs of beta-amyloid plaques or protein tangles, both of which have been directly linked to Alzheimer’s
  • MRI: Rules out other causes and can check for brain shrinkage or cell death
  • CT: Checks for tumors, strokes, or other head injuries that may be to blame for changes in cognitive function

How is Alzheimer’s treated?

There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease. As the disease progresses, caregivers can use non-drug strategies to manage behavioral symptoms, such as maintaining a comfortable, structured environment.

There are a few FDA-approved medications that have been shown to slow the progression of the disease or at least stabilize symptoms for a period of time, but they don’t work for everyone.

Cholinesterase inhibitors

Cholinesterase inhibitors are a type of drug that can help control Alzheimer’s symptoms by blocking the breakdown of acetylcholine (a neurotransmitter) in the brain. This helps improve brain signaling, and, as a result, may improve memory and help people complete everyday activities. Cholinesterase inhibitors that are prescribed for Alzheimer’s include donepezil, which is used for all stages of Alzheimer’s, and galantamine and rivastigmine, which are used for mild to moderate Alzheimer’s.


Memantine slows the progression of already worsening symptoms by regulating glutamate, a chemical in the brain. It’s used for moderate to severe Alzheimer’s. It can also be prescribed in conjunction with cholinesterase inhibitors.  

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