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Doctors diagnose the cause of dementia by asking questions about the person's medical history and doing a physical exam, a mental status exam, and lab and imaging tests.
Tests can help the doctor find out if the loss of mental abilities is caused by a condition that can be treated. Even if the cause can't be treated, it's good to know what type of dementia a person has. Knowing the type can help the doctor prescribe medicines or other treatments that may improve mood and behavior and help the family.
During a medical history and physical exam, the doctor will ask the person and a close relative or partner about recent illnesses or other life events that could cause memory loss. The doctor will also ask about other symptoms such as behavioral problems. The doctor may ask the person to bring in all medicines he or she takes. This can help the doctor find out if the problem might be caused by the person being overmedicated or having a drug interaction.
A person may have more than one illness causing dementia. But symptoms sometimes can distinguish one form from another. For example, early in the course of frontotemporal dementia, people may display a lack of social awareness and be obsessed with eating.
Mental status exam
A doctor or other health professional will conduct a mental status exam. For this test, the person may be asked to tell what day and year it is, repeat a series of words, draw a clock face, and count back from 100 by 7s.
Many medical conditions can cause mental impairment. During a physical exam, the doctor will look for signs of other medical problems and have lab tests done to find any condition that can be treated. Routine tests include:
Thyroid hormone tests to check for an underactive thyroid.
Vitamin B12 blood test to look for a vitamin deficiency.
Other lab tests that may be done include:
Complete blood count (CBC) to look for infections.
ALT or AST blood tests to check liver function.
Chemistry screen. This test checks the level of electrolytes in the blood and checks kidney function.
Glucose test to check the level of sugar in the blood.
HIV testing to look for AIDS.
Erythrocyte sedimentation rate blood test. It looks for signs of inflammation in the body.
Toxicology screen. This test examines blood, urine, or hair to look for drugs that could be causing problems.
Antinuclear antibodies blood test to diagnose autoimmune diseases.
Testing, such as a lead test, to look for heavy metals in the blood.
A lumbar puncture to test for certain proteins in the spinal fluid. This test may also be done to rule out other causes of symptoms.
Brain imaging tests such as CT scans and MRI may also be done to make sure another problem isn't causing the symptoms. These tests may rule out brain tumors normal-pressure hydrocephalus, or other conditions that could cause a loss of mental abilities.
MRI and CT scan also can show evidence of strokes from vascular dementia.
Single photon emission CT (SPECT) and PET scan can help identify several forms of dementia, including vascular dementia and frontotemporal dementia.
In some cases, electrical activity in the brain may be measured using an electroencephalogram (EEG). Doctors seldom use this test to diagnose dementia. But they may use it to distinguish dementia from delirium and to look for unusual brain activity found in Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare cause of dementia.
After death, an autopsy may be done to find out for sure what caused dementia. This information may be helpful to family members concerned about genetic causes.
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