If I suspect I have some kind of memory impairment, possibly Alzheimer’s disease, what kind of evaluation or assessments should I expect when I visit my physician?

An early and accurate diagnosis can ensure you get appropriate treatment and care, and that you can access educational resources and support.

The first step is to make an appointment with your regular primary care doctor or internist with your concerns to begin the assessments.

There is not one single test that can determine Alzheimer’s disease. The physician will take your thorough medical history, and then give a complete neurological and physical exam. Blood tests and brain imaging will be done to rule out any other medical conditions or the causes of dementia-like symptoms.

Oftentimes, memory impairment can be caused by such factors as depression, thyroid problems, drug interactions, vitamin deficiencies and even alcohol abuse.

The doctor assesses your symptoms and asks a series of questions or may possibly ask you to perform specific tasks. The mini-mental status exam or Folstein’s test, a 30-point questionnaire, is often given to test cognitive and memory skills.

Neurological testing can be evaluated by a specialist trained in brain conditions, and can include a computerized tomography (CT) scan, which uses X-rays to obtain cross-sectional images of the brain, or by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which reveals a more detailed view of the brain. The degeneration of brain cells can be uncovered in these brain scans. However, results from these types of testing are not enough for diagnosis, as there is an overlap in what physicians believe to be normal age-related change in the brain and abnormal change.

Nevertheless, brain imaging does help rule out other causes of memory impairment, such a tumors, strokes or hemorrhages. And, the brain image can be helpful in establishing a baseline regarding the degree of degeneration in the brain.

Experts guess that physicians can diagnose Alzheimer’s with more than 90 percent accuracy (a definitive diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease is only possible with an autopsy).

Researchers are working on new diagnostic tools that would enable physicians to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease earlier, when symptoms are very mild or before they even appear.

Regardless, early diagnosis can lead to a better opportunity to benefit from various treatments, more time to make future plans and getting a firm diagnosis can lessen the anxieties about your unknown “illness.”

Moreover, there are greater chances of participation in clinical trials, and you can benefit from support services and resources to assist you and your family in the journey.

Questions about Alzheimer’s disease or a related dementia disorder? Contact Dana Territo, the Memory Whisperer, Director of Services at Alzheimer’s Services of the Capital Area, (225) 334-7494, advice@alzbr.org, or visit the organization at 3772 North Blvd., Baton Rouge.