When you hear about the growing number of people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia each year, it’s understandable to be frightened that you or a loved one will also have the illness. While there is not a test to diagnose someone with Alzheimer’s disease, there are screening tools that can be used by a health care provider to answer questions about symptoms.
In fact, sometimes a screening test might uncover a non-dementia cause for cognitive impairment.
Cognitive impairment could be the result of medication side effects, thyroid problems or something else. Also, a screening test can be handy not just to test for existing cognitive issues, but also to provide a primary care doctor with one’s prior cognitive state. For example, if you got in a car accident and had brain fog, then the doctor would know your status prior to that.
Early detection of Alzheimer’s and other dementia is now part of an annual wellness visit during which people can discuss concerns about cognitive impairment with their doctor. Note that a screening done outside of a doctor’s office should not be a substitute for a doctor’s visit.
Benefits of Early Detection of Dementia
Although there is presently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, experts agree that there are many benefits to early detection—either because dementia is actually ruled out and another cause is found and addressed or because it helps the individual and their family prepare for the changes that come with the illness.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, “an early diagnosis can improve the quality of care and life as well as reduce the financial impact of the disease.” They go on to explain that, “Early diagnosis allows individuals with the disease and their caregivers to better manage medications, build a care team, manage comorbidities, receive counseling and other support services, create advance directives, enroll in clinical trial and address driving and safety concerns.”
Knowledge is important, even if the results of a screening can seem scary at first. “What we find is that because of a lot of the stigma of Alzheimer’s disease, the denial and the fear of it, people are not talking to their doctors about memory problems they might be having,” said Carol Steinberg, executive vice president of the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America.
Types of Cognitive Tests for Dementia
There is more than one test for cognition and memory available. Each year, the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, provides testing on National Memory Screening Day in November. These tests are free and private. Go to the AFA website to get details on where to go in your area. These 10-minute non-invasive tests are not a replacement for a diagnosis.
The General Practitioner assessment for Cognition (GPCOG)-- is one such test, also administered outside of a doctor’s office by qualified professionals. It’s intended to be a baseline test that can then be shared with a preferred healthcare provider who can determine if the symptoms are being caused by, for example, a vitamin deficiency or other ailment, or to make a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.
The reasons for taking the test are unique to each individual. “There might be a family history of Alzheimer’s disease or they might want to check now for future comparison,” Ms. Steinberg said. “We encourage a full medical evaluation because it might be something else that is treatable.”
In fact, Ms. Steinberg said that some people have come to a screening and followed up with their doctor and found that their symptoms turned out to be a vitamin deficiency or something else. “Then their fears of Alzheimer’s disease were mitigated,” she said.
The foundation also hears from people who took their screening results to their doctor and were able to get early treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.
The GPCOG and other screening tests work best for people who are in the early stage of Alzheimer’s and other dementia.