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How is Alzheimer’s disease diagnosed?

Today, the only definitive way to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease is to find out whether there are plaques and tangles in brain tissue. 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 can 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 brain and nervous system disorders.)

Doctors use several tools to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease:

  • 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
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