How Is Dementia Diagnosed? A Geriatrician Explains

how is dementia diagnosed

Geriatrician explains how dementia is diagnosed

Dr. Leslie Kernisan, a San Francisco Bay Area geriatrician, is often asked if an older adult patient has Alzheimer’s or dementia.

Because so many families have asked “how is dementia diagnosed?” she wrote an article explaining how doctors typically evaluate and diagnose problems with memory, thinking, or judgement.

In the full article, she describes the basic diagnostic tests, what types of information are needed, and how long the process takes. We’ve summarized the key points from her article.


5 key features of dementia

Dr. Kernisan describes the 5 issues that people with dementia typically experience:

  • Difficulty with one or more types of mental function, like learning, memory, language, judgement
  • Problems that are a change compared to the person’s usual abilities
  • Problems that make it difficult for them to manage everyday life responsibilities, like work or family
  • Problems that aren’t caused by another mental disorder, like depression


5 steps doctors take to diagnose dementia

Doctors typically go through 5 areas of evaluation to figure out whether someone has dementia. The doctor needs to check each area and document what they find.

1. Difficulty with mental functions
This is usually evaluated with a combination of an office-based cognitive test and finding out about real-world problems by talking with their patient and people close to them.

2. Decline from previous level of ability
This can be harder for a doctor to determine, so they need to talk with people who know their patient well to understand their previous abilities versus what they can do today.

For example, if a former accountant can no longer do basic math, that’s a decline from their previous ability.

3. Impairment of daily life function
This can also be tough to see right away. The doctor will ask about what types of help the person is getting in their daily life and what problems family members have seen.

4. Reversible causes of cognitive impairment
Certain conditions can cause temporary dementia-like symptoms. Delirium can seem like Alzheimer’s or dementia and is usually caused by illness, infections, or a hospitalization and can last from weeks to months.

Other medical problems that interfere with thinking skills include thyroid problems, electrolyte imbalances, B12 deficiency, depression, substance abuse, and medication side effects.

5. Other mental disorders
Depression is a common mental health issue for older adults and can sometimes be confused with dementia symptoms. And sometimes, seniors have depression and dementia at the same time.

It’s also important to consider the person’s mental health history. Paranoia or delusions could be related to mental health conditions like schizophrenia.


Dementia cannot be diagnosed in a single visit

As you can see, the 5 areas a doctor needs to evaluate are complex and require a lot of information gathering and lab tests. It’s highly unlikely that a doctor could make an accurate diagnosis in one office visit.


What to do if the doctor jumps to a diagnosis in a single visit

Unfortunately, some doctors do jump quickly to a diagnosis in only one visit. Even worse, they don’t properly document what led to their decision. If this happens, you may want to seek a second opinion from a doctor who is willing to do more thorough evaluation and testing.

Yes, there is a high chance that their symptoms could mean dementia. But what if those dementia-like symptoms are caused by other reversible health conditions? An accurate diagnosis is essential for proper treatment.


How to prepare if your senior needs to be evaluated for dementia

If you’re concerned that your older adult could have Alzheimer’s or dementia, Dr. Kernisan provides a list of the types of information you can gather to help the doctor with their evaluation.


Next Step  Dr. Kernisan explains how to get an accurate Alzheimer’s or dementia diagnosis


You might also like:
What’s the Difference Between Alzheimer’s and Dementia?
8 Forms of Dementia You Might Not Know About [Infographic]
Q & A: Should You Correct Someone with Alzheimer’s?


By DailyCaring Editorial Team
Image: Bel Marra Health

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