How Dementia Is Diagnosed and Treated

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Dementia isn’t a specific disease, but rather a collection of symptoms. That means there is no one test for it. Here’s how doctors go about making a diagnosis, and what treatment options are currently available.

How is dementia diagnosed?

In order for doctors to positively say a person has dementia, they’ll look for cognitive impairment that is severe enough to impact a person’s daily life. This is key: Memory lapses and forgetfulness can happen naturally as people get older and may not be a sign of a more serious condition. Clinicians look for a variety of clues, like increased agitation, confusion, difficulty speaking, and decreased ability to perform routine tasks (like paying bills) or care for one’s self (like keeping up with daily hygiene).

If dementia is suspected, doctors will run a variety of tests to either rule out other conditions or attempt to confirm the symptoms are, in fact, related to dementia:

  • Physical exams can help gauge general neurological function. The exams may include tests of balance, coordination, and reflexes.
  • Blood tests can help doctors dismiss (or confirm) other causes that may be triggering a change in cognitive function. That can include chronic disorders, such as high cholesterol or diabetes, or potential vitamin deficiencies (like low B12).
  • Cognitive tests of memory, recall, and critical thinking can assess where a patient’s mental capacity falls in relation to other people of the same age. If it’s on par, changes in memory or behavior may be simply a sign of aging.
  • Brain scans may be able to pinpoint the type of dementia a patient may have. PET scans, for example, are able to detect if a person’s brain shows signs of beta-amyloid plaques or protein tangles, both of which have been directly linked to Alzheimer’s disease, a type of dementia. If the brain scan shows signs of other abnormal protein deposits, it may be a sign of Lewy body dementia.

How is dementia treated?

Dementia, including Alzheimer’s, can’t be cured. If the dementia is caused by an underlying condition, such as Parkinson’s disease, treatments that slow that progression may help stave off dementia for a while longer.

There are also FDA-approved medications that have been shown to slow the progression of cognitive decline for a short period of time in some people.

  • Cholinesterase inhibitors block the breakdown of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter in the brain that’s important for learning and memory. This class of drugs include donepezil (Aricept), galantamine (Razadyne), and rivastigmine (Exelon).
  • Memantine is a drug that works by targeting a different chemical in the brain that impacts information processing and recall. It is used for moderate to severe Alzheimer’s. Memantine is sometimes prescribed with cholinesterase inhibitors.

Researchers continue to search for new ways to treat dementia; consider joining a clinical trial to stay on the cutting edge of science.

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