diagnosing dementia testing

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports that more than 342 800 Australians have dementia. This second article in our series on dementia will remove the mystery surrounding the diagnosis of this condition. If you or your loved one displays the symptoms outlined in our first article "Diagnosing Dementia: Steps To Early Identification", make an urgent G.P. appointment. Diagnosis is complex with a range of data needed from various specialists, so it will take some time. This data will include:

  • medical history
  • physical check-up
  • results from pathology tests
  • results from cognitive tests
  • X-rays and brain scans
  • Medical Records

When you visit your G.P., he or she will check your medical records and ask you and your accompanying family member about recent health issues. If you are recovering from a serious illness, for example, memory lapses and other symptoms of dementia may be present until you have fully recovered. Your G.P. will rule out other causes before conducting further tests for dementia.

Physical Examination

Basic health indicators such as your hearing, eyesight, blood pressure, heart rate and reflexes will be checked. This will help your G.P. determine if you have an infection, high blood pressure in your lungs or other illnesses which may explain your symptoms. If your reflexes or coordination are abnormal, your G.P. may refer you to a neurologist as this could indicate impaired brain function.

Pathology Tests

A “dementia screen” is a series of blood and urine tests to confirm that you have no infections, nutritional deficiencies or other abnormal conditions. Some of these conditions are:

Once your G.P. has been unable to identify other causes, he or she will refer you to a specialist. You could be sent to a neurologist, geriatrician or psychiatrist who specialises in memory changes for further testing. These professionals may find a problem that your G.P. has overlooked. In addition, Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, must be confirmed by a specialist so that your medications can be subsidised.

Your specialist will usually begin with some simple psychological tests. You may be asked to recall basic information, name everyday objects and memorise a short list of words. The Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE) is one commonly used test. You and your family member will also be asked to outline any memory lapses or behavioural changes you have noted.

More complex cognitive tests which assess language, recall, ability to follow instructions, ability to calculate and concentration may then be conducted. These will help to determine which parts of brain function are impaired and which type of dementia may be present.

X-rays and Brain Scans

Your specialist may order standard x-rays to confirm that there are no problems in your chest or other areas of the body. He or she may also request some of the following brain scans.

CT, CAT and MRI Scans: identify structural changes to brain tissue. If your brain has shrunk in certain areas, this may be a sign of dementia. However, evidence of conditions such as stroke or tumour which may be causing your symptoms can also be detected.

SPECT and PET Scans: are highly technical and show areas of the brain where blood flow is reduced. If a specialist is unable to make a clear diagnosis from other information provided, these scans may be used.

Do Not Delay

It is vital that you and a family member see your G.P. as soon as possible if you suspect the onset of dementia. The various tests take time and your symptoms may be the result of another underlying condition. Even if dementia is diagnosed, early treatment and determination can produce better outcomes.


Image credit: "Running a Test" (cropped) by Myfuture.com. (Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License)

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