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Have you noticed changes in your memory recall? Have you wondered whether memory loss is normal or whether you might have a more serious condition? 

Dementia is the loss of cognitive functioning to such an extent that it interferes with a person’s daily life. Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia, although there are other forms. Dementia affects millions of people. However, it is not a normal part of aging. 

How can you tell whether you or a loved one has dementia? Thankfully there have been advances in screening tools to help people get more definitive diagnoses sooner. 

Cognitive Assessments: The First Step 

Medicare now pays for cognitive assessments at annual Wellness visits. If your physician hasn’t offered this screening, it’s a good idea to ask. Even if you don’t feel you’ve had significant memory loss, the test will provide a baseline for comparisons during exams in future years. These tests generally involve answering questions and doing simple tasks such as spelling words backward. The test is noninvasive and usually takes less than 15 minutes. 

Digging Deeper: Additional Testing 

If your physician has concerns following this initial screening, you may be referred for additional testing: 

Brain Scans 

Brain scans can help identify changes in the brain’s structure, as well as underlying conditions that may affect brain function. The most common scans are CT scans, using X-rays to produce imaging, MRI’s which produce more detailed imaging of tissues, and PET scans, which use radiation to provide pictures of brain activity. PET scans allow practitioners to detect Amyloid and Tau—proteins associated with Alzheimer’s disease—as well as neural degeneration within the brain. 

Genetic Testing 

Genetic tests have made advances in recent years. The gene APOE is linked to a higher risk of late-onset Alzheimer’s. Other genes are apparent in early-onset (ages 30-60) dementia. Most experts don’t routinely recommend genetic testing for late-onset Alzheimer’s, but testing may be helpful for certain treatments to show how likely an individual is to have side effects. 

Blood Tests: The Future Beckons 

Some promising research is underway in studying genes that may protect against Alzheimer’s disease. Ultimately, the goal is to find ways to improve the resilience of neurons within our brains to maintain high levels of cognitive functioning. 

Very recent advances in blood tests have been able to detect levels of Amyloid and Tau proteins. While blood tests alone cannot currently be used to diagnose dementia, several other blood tests are in development that could someday lead to simple tests for early detection. 

Medicare and other insurance companies pay for some of these tests. Check with your physician to better understand diagnostic options. 

The Timely Diagnosis Dilemma 

Some people are very concerned about receiving a dementia diagnosis, so they put off getting an assessment. Many times, people have lived with gradual memory problems for years and it is friends or families who recognize how significant the decline has become. While the prospect of receiving a dementia diagnosis is daunting, getting a timely diagnosis can help you make important decisions about treatment and support options. 

The Road to Resilience 

Learning new strategies to adopt as the disease progresses is critical for both the person with dementia and their family members. To learn more about these options, join Dr. Neela Patel as she presents “Practical, Researched-based Dementia Strategies” at EdenHill Communities’ Alzheimer’s Symposium on October 5th.  

Dr. Patel is from the Biggs Institute in San Antonio, a National Institute on Aging-designated Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center. For more information, please go to edenhill.org/symposium or call 830-625-1327. The event is free, with breakfast and lunch provided, and will be located at the McKenna Event Center. Reservations required.