What Kind of Exams Are Available for Alzheimer’s?

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: January 2023

Before the early 2000s, the only sure way to diagnose someone with Alzheimer’s disease was by looking at their brain after they died. But thanks to advances in science, doctors can more easily diagnose Alzheimer’s earlier using different exams.1

There are many different kinds of dementia. And many diseases can mimic the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. This is why early diagnosis is so crucial – it allows you to get the help you need as soon as possible.1,2

There is no single test or exam for Alzheimer’s. Your care team will look at a variety of tests to get a big-picture understanding of your symptoms and what the cause may be.

Family history and medical history

Doctors will often first look at your family history and personal medical history. This means they will ask written or verbal questions about what medicines you take, past and present illnesses, drug and alcohol use, and family medical history.1,3

Doctors may also ask other people in your life questions about your symptoms. While you are the best person to communicate your symptoms, your friends and family may have insight into how you have changed over time.2

Exams

There are many possible physical and neurological (nerve) exams to assess Alzheimer’s symptoms. Each of these exams can help doctors figure out what is causing your symptoms. Exams can help your doctor find out whether the cause is Alzheimer’s disease.1-3

One of these exams is called a mental status (or "neuropsychological") test. There are many of these available, including the Montreal Cognitive Assessment, the Self-Administered Gerocognitive Examination, and the older Mini-Mental Status Exam. These are designed to assess your:1,2

  • Cognitive (thinking) function
  • Memory
  • Problem solving
  • Attention
  • Use of language

Your doctor may also perform brain imaging tests (scans), such as:1-3

  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging)
  • CT (computed tomography)
  • PET (positron emission tomography)

These scans are not used alone to diagnose Alzheimer's. But they are helpful for:1-3

  • Ruling out other causes
  • Distinguishing between types of brain disease
  • Establishing a baseline to see damage to the brain cells (degeneration) as it progresses

Genetic testing can also be helpful. This helps your doctor figure out if you have genetic Alzheimer’s. Changes (mutations) in the genes are the primary cause of early-onset Alzheimer's. Early-onset Alzheimer’s occurs before the age of 65 years old. With early-onset Alzheimer's, early detection is critical. The 3 genes involved are:3

  • AAP on chromosome 21
  • PSEN 1 on chromosome 14
  • PSEN 2 on chromosome 1

There are also other tests that your doctor may perform. Blood tests, cerebrospinal fluid tests, and other standard medical tests can help identify other causes of the problem. Also, doctors can now see your levels of beta-amyloid through a blood test. Beta-amyloid is a harmful protein. The way it collects in the brain is one of the markers of Alzheimer’s.1-3

Ruling out other conditions

It is important to rule out whether there is another possible cause for your symptoms. Your doctors may evaluate your mental health to see if depression or another condition is contributing to symptoms. They may also perform tests over time in order to get an accurate picture of how your body and brain are changing.1,2

Each of the tests your doctor gives you can help rule out other causes for your symptoms. These tests can uncover if stroke, thyroid disease, Parkinson’s, sleep disturbances, another type of dementia, or something else is contributing. Some of these conditions are treatable and possibly reversible.1,2

You may be nervous about getting tested for Alzheimer’s. It can be difficult to prepare for the losses that dementia can bring. But while there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, early detection is still incredibly helpful. There are drug and nondrug options available to manage symptoms. Or you may be able to participate in clinical trials.2

The earlier you and your care team can identify the underlying cause of your symptoms, the better prepared you will be. Each of these exams is a step forward in detecting Alzheimer’s accurately and early.

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