Dementia test

How can you test for dementia? Here, we look at how dementia is diagnosed. 

While there is no single dementia test, there are different methods that medical specialists use to help make a dementia diagnosis. 

The first thing to understand is that dementia is an umbrella term for a set of symptoms – so the term dementia doesn’t refer to one specific condition. There are a range of different types of dementia which all have similar symptoms, so it can be difficult to test a) if a person has dementia and b) what type of dementia they may have.

A dementia diagnosis is usually made after a number of tests and procedures performed by a GP and specialists which may include a neurologist, geriatrician, and/or a psychiatrist. 

Talk to a GP about dementia concerns

If you are concerned that a loved one may have dementia, speak to their doctor first, as some other health conditions can have similar symptoms including:

Stress
Depression
Diabetes
Infections
Side effects of some medications.

While a GP can’t specifically test for dementia, they can review your loved one’s medical history and carry out some initial tests, such as a physical examination, blood tests, and urine tests to rule out other conditions that may be causing their symptoms. 

Their doctor may also carry out a basic thinking or cognitive test to check your loved one’s memory, concentration, problem-solving and language skills.  

Specialists can help diagnose dementia

If a doctor suspects that someone might have dementia they will generally refer them to a specialist to confirm a diagnosis. These specialists can include:

Neurologists

 A neurologist is a specialist in brain and nerve disorders. They can order a brain scan to help identify any damage using either a computed tomography (CT) scan or a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan. The neurologist may also look for signs of other brain disorders, including strokes, brain tumours, Parkinson’s disease, fluid accumulation on the brain, and other conditions which may impact thinking or memory.

Geriatricians
 
A geriatrician is a doctor who specialises in health care for older people. They will likely check to see whether the symptoms are caused by another physical illness, instead of dementia. Geriatricians are familiar with how the body changes as it ages and have experience picking up on whether certain symptoms are regular changes that come with ageing, or something more serious.
 
Psychiatrists

A psychiatrist is a specialist in emotional and behavioural disorders. They can diagnose depression or other mental health issues, and assess mental abilities. A geriatric psychiatrist specialises in the emotions and behaviour of people who are ageing. While dementia is not a mental illness, dementia symptoms can be related to mental health problems, like anxiety, depression, hallucinations and agitation.

Brain scans

Dementia tests

While there’s no single dementia test, a combination of the following tests may be used by doctors to help diagnose dementia:

Personal history

A doctor will look at a person’s medical history and assess any changes in their memory and thinking.

Physical examination

This may be used to rule out other conditions which could be causing the symptoms.

Brain scans

Different types of brain imaging scans can be used to rule out other conditions, or may be able to find changes which could indicate a specific type of dementia. For example, Alzheimer’s disease can sometimes be diagnosed through a brain scan.

Neurological examination

This might include movement tests or tests of the senses, and is mostly used to rule out other medical conditions which may cause symptoms similar to dementia. 

Cognitive tests

This includes testing for things like memory, problem solving, language, counting skills and concentration.

Pathology tests

Blood or urine tests may also be used to rule out any other causes of the dementia-like symptoms such as a vitamin deficiency or an infection.

Bupa Aged Care

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Clinical trials

While there is currently no cure for any of the conditions which cause dementia, there may be an option to participate in a clinical trial. The Australian New Zealand Clinical Trials Registry is one place to start if you are looking for information about which trials are relevant, and how you may be able to get involved. 

Support for people caring for someone with dementia

Caring for a person who is ageing or experiencing the early signs of dementia can be really tough, physically and emotionally. 
 
If you want to talk to a real person who can help guide you and connect you with the right support, contact the Bupa Aged Care Support Line on 1800 780 038. It’s free and available to everyone - not just Bupa members.
 
The team of health care professionals can help with your questions about dementia, aged care homes, paying for care, and can connect you with other services.

Read more: What's the difference between dementia and Alzheimer's? 

Person in a care home after taking a dementia test
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