Today, the only definitive way to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease is to find out whether there are plaques and tangles in brain tissue. In order to look at brain tissue, doctors perform a brain autopsy, which is an examination of the brain done after a person dies.
Doctors can only make a diagnosis of “possible” or “probable” Alzheimer’s disease while a person is alive. Doctors with special training are able to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease correctly up to 90 percent of the time. These include board-certified geriatricians, geriatric psychiatrists, and neurologists. (A geriatrician specializes in treatment of older adults, and a neurologist specializes in both brain and nervous system disorders.)
Doctors use several tools for Alzheimer’s diagnosis:
- a complete medical history, with questions about the person’s general health, past medical problems, family health, and any difficulties carrying out daily activities
- medical tests, such as tests of blood, urine, or spinal fluid
- tests to measure memory, problem solving, attention, counting, and language skills
- brain scans that allow the doctor to look at a picture of the brain to see if anything does not look normal