If a health professional suspects a serious cognitive problem, you should undergo a thorough medical and neuropsychological evaluation. That will help determine what is causing dementia symptoms and how to treat them. A dementia diagnosis will most likely include many of the following steps and procedures:
Description of the history or sudden onset of symptoms. You or your loved one may be asked to describe problems in detail: In what order did things happen? How long have the symptoms been present? How do they affect the patient's daily life?
Review of medical history and medications. This information can help identify other conditions that may be causing symptoms and indicate a patient's risk for a particular type of dementia or disease. It can help identify side effects from medications that may contribute to or even be causing the problems. Be sure to bring medications — or at least an accurate list of drugs and doses — to the appointment.
Physical examination. A physical exam helps rule out treatable causes of dementia and identifies signs of stroke or other illnesses, such as heart disease or kidney failure.
Neurological evaluations. A neurological examination looks at balance, sensory function, reflexes, and other functions to identify signs of conditions such as movement disorders or stroke that may cause or contribute to symptoms.
Cognitive and neuropsychological tests. These tests measure memory, language skills, math skills, and other signs of mental functioning, such as problem solving. Doctors often use a test called the Mini Mental State Examination (MMSE) to assess cognitive skills in people with suspected dementia, although the MMSE cannot be used alone to diagnose Alzheimer's disease.
Laboratory tests to rule out vitamin deficiencies or metabolic conditions. Occasionally, a simple vitamin deficiency, infection, or hormone imbalance can cause cognitive symptoms. Some laboratory tests may indicate a condition that puts a person at risk for developing dementia, such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure.
Imaging techniques. Doctors may use imaging techniques to identify strokes, tumors, or other problems that can cause dementia. The most common types of brain scans are computed tomographic (CT) scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and positron emission tomography (PET).
The process of diagnosing dementia has become more accurate in recent years, and specialists are able to collect and analyze a range of indicators to determine whether and why a problem may exist, and how it should be treated.