If a memory screening indicates possible problems, the person should follow up with a doctor or another qualified healthcare professional as soon as possible for a complete medical evaluation.
A person’s primary care provider may also recommend seeing a healthcare professional with expertise in memory disorders and dementia. This might be another local primary care physician or specialist, such as a neurologist, geriatrician, psychologist or psychiatrist.
Follow-up is important to identify the cause of the memory problems. Memory problems could be caused by Alzheimer’s disease or other medical conditions.
Some memory problems can be readily treated, such as those caused by vitamin deficiencies or thyroid problems. Other memory problems might result from causes that are not currently reversible, such as Alzheimer’s disease.
Clinicians diagnose “probable” Alzheimer's disease by doing a thorough diagnostic work-up.
This can include:
- Complete medical history, which includes family history, previous and existing illnesses, and information about the onset and duration of symptoms related to memory loss.
- Physical examination to find evidence of any underlying medical or neurological disorders that may be contributing to symptoms.
- Neuropsychological tests that gauge memory, attention, language skills and problem-solving abilities—similar to those used during a memory screening.
- Laboratory tests that can include blood and urine samples to check vitamin levels and thyroid function, for example. These can detect the presence of any systemic illness that may be contributing to symptoms.
- Brain imaging scans, such as a CT scan, MRI, SPECT or PET scan, can identify changes in brain structure or activity that indicate a possible underlying cause for a memory problem.
The causes of dementia are complex; a complete clinical evaluation by a skilled clinician will identify the primary cause of dementia in more than 90 percent of cases. Clinicians diagnose Alzheimer’s disease as the cause of dementia in about 60 percent of individuals living with the disease.
An examination after death (autopsy) can confirm the causes of dementia or identify the diseases that contributed to memory loss. This information may help family members and future generations predict their risk for dementia and will help scientists now working to prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.