Diagnosing Alzheimer’s and other dementia

There is no single way to test and officially diagnose Alzheimer’s or dementia. Physicians and physician teams instead use a series of steps and other factors to determine a living diagnosis. Oftentimes these steps can help physicians diagnose a person with dementia, however, they do not always explain the cause. 

Physicians combine the following tools to administer a diagnosis:

  • Reviewing medical history for both the individual and family. This includes psychiatric history and history of behavioral or cognitive changes.
  • Conducting blood tests and brain imaging to rule out other potential causes of dementia symptoms. 
  • Speaking with a family member to learn about changes in skills or behavior. 
  • Conducting cognitive tests as well as neurological examinations. 
  • Brain imaging to detect high levels of beta-amyloid, a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. 

Though Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia, there are other possible causes. Different symptom patterns often indicate different causes of dementia. Physicians will use the series of tests to try and determine the single or mixed sources of dementia symptoms. The better they understand the sources, the more comprehensively they can design a treatment plan. 

Though no exact test exists for living individuals yet, understanding the process can help you know what to expect when going in to be seen by a physician regarding memory loss. If you aren’t sure where to start, we have resources designed to help you find a provider, understand your diagnosis, and decide how to move forward. Call our 24/7 Helpline for assistance at any stage: 800.272.3900.

For more from our Facts & Figures 2020 Report, click here.

Caregiver Tips: Reducing the Effects of Sundowning

People living with Alzheimer’s or other dementia sometimes have problems sleeping, or behavioral issues that start at dusk and sometimes last through the night. This is known as sundowning, and there are steps you can take to minimize its effects. The changes in their sleep schedule can lead to more behavioral issues, so it’s important to minimize the difficulties as much as possible. Oftentimes sundowning peaks during the middle stages of Alzheimer’s, though it can surface at any stage.

There are some factors to look out for that can exacerbate sundowning:

  • Mental and physical exhaustion 
  • Upset in the “internal body clock”, causing a biological mix up between day and night
  • Shadows due to reduced lighting can cause confusion about what people living with Alzheimer’s are seeing 
  • Inability to separate dreams from reality can cause disorientation

Ways to help reduce effects of sundowning:

Keep a precise schedule. In order to maintain a restful night’s sleep, set times for every meal, bedtime, and waking up. Even working in a timed daily walk or exercise routine can help uphold the day’s structure.

Avoid stimulants. Nicotine, caffeine and alcohol can all affect one’s ability to sleep. Television can also be activating, so turn it off at least an hour before bed and avoid using television during periods of wakefulness during the night.

Be active during the day. Resting most of the day can cause restlessness at night. Discourage late afternoon napping and instead replace afternoons with activities. Puzzles, card games, cooking/baking, looking at family photo albums, reading out loud, or listening to music are all stimulating options to help fill the day. 

Stay mindful of your own exhaustion. Sometimes loved ones living with Alzheimer’s can pick up on your stress and become agitated. Caregivers need to get enough rest at night as well to ensure they can stay energized during the day. 

Keep the home lit in the evening. Shadows and the dark make for unfamiliar and sometimes disorienting settings. Keep the home well lit until it’s time to sleep.

Create a safe and comfortable sleeping environment. Make sure to keep the room at a comfortable temperature. Install the appropriate door and window locks to avoid wandering- door sensors and motion detectors can be used to alert family members if a person is awake and roaming. 

Share your experience and connect. Join ALZConnected, our online support community and message boards. Here you can share your experiences, what did and didn’t work, and hear from others about coping mechanisms or just general support. Join ALZConnected
For more information on caregiving and staying safe during COVID-19, visit here.

Walk to End Alzheimer’s Volunteer Jackie Marco

Jackie Marco is a Walk to End Alzheimer’s Volunteer from Sandwich, Illinois. She has raised over $4,000 in support of the Walk to End Alzheimer’s over the course of two years. She is currently employed at Financial Plus Credit Union in Ottawa, Illinois. She comes from a family of farmers, owning over 800 acres of farmland with her siblings and father. Her connections across the community make Jackie an impactful leader for the Walk to End Alzheimer’s Illinois Valley. To learn more about getting involved with Walk to End Alzheimer’s, click here. 

“I am 22 years old and currently live in Sandwich, Illinois. I work in the banking industry as well as help on my family’s farms. Pictured is myself in the middle along with my parents Jeff & Patty. I have one fur baby Lizzy who is a purebred Border Collie. I got involved with the Illinois Valley Walk two years ago.

This is something that hits very close to home for me. All three of my grandparents who I grew up with have battled Alzheimer’s. I lost my grandma (my mom’s mom) in August of 2018, my grandpa (dad’s dad) in August of 2019 and most recently my other grandma (dad’s mom) in January of 2020. It had been very hard to watch all of them go through and battle this horrible disease. With the help of our families and a live-in full-time caretaker, we were able to care for all three of them and keep them in their homes. Having been through all of this and now losing all of them makes this walk mean so much more to me. 

I do believe that one day there will be a cure. I am so excited to play a role in planning and putting this walk together this year and cannot wait to work with everyone!”

Volunteer Support Group Facilitator Claudia Amador

Claudia Amador is a volunteer support group facilitator for the Alzheimer’s Association Illinois Chapter. A support group is a regularly scheduled in-person or virtual gathering of people with Alzheimer’s disease or another dementia, family, friends or caregivers who interact around issues relating to dementia. Groups can have social, educational and/or support components and are facilitated by individuals who have received training from the Alzheimer’s Association. Find a support group near you here: Illinois Chapter Support Groups

Claudia Amador’s connection with Alzheimer’s started with her work as a neurologist in her home country of Honduras. One day a colleague approached Claudia about starting a memory clinic in the hospital. She knew starting a memory clinic would be a good opportunity to educate herself and others, and understand memory loss. For four years she ran a memory clinic in Honduras evaluating patients with memory loss, meeting with caregivers, coordinating neurocognitive tests, and running educational seminars for the population. Through this experience, she became very familiar with Alzheimer’s and dementia and grew a passion for sharing her knowledge with others. “For that reason, it’s important to be a part of the Alzheimer’s Association because I share the same vision and mission.” 

Claudia’s involvement with the Alzheimer’s Association has spread across different initiatives, allowing her to help serve the mission in many ways. She started off volunteering at the Chicago Walk to End Alzheimer’s for two years, followed by six months as a volunteer working for our 24/7 Helpline. Now Claudia serves as a support group facilitator, guiding those who are struggling to navigate the effects of Alzheimer’s and all other dementia. 

Claudia values the relationships she forms with support group participants because she sees the uplifting nature of sharing experiences with others. Claudia notes that her time as a volunteer support group facilitator has shown her how many people do not have enough knowledge of the disease that drives the impetus for action. In her groups, participants have a desire to learn just as much as they do to share. The supportive, bonded nature of the groups creates a cycle of knowledge sharing and encouragement. Facilitators like Claudia are important parts of guiding such strong foundations for successful support groups. 

When she’s not volunteering, Claudia enjoys spending time with her mother and son. They enjoy walks outside in the Spring and Summer, as well as good conversation over delicious meals. Her favorite movies are foreign films and comedies that she can enjoy with her family. 

Volunteer Support Group Facilitator Mary Sanko

Mary Sanko is a volunteer support group facilitator for the Alzheimer’s Association Illinois Chapter. A support group is a regularly scheduled in-person or virtual gathering of people with Alzheimer’s disease or another dementia, family, friends or caregivers who interact around issues relating to dementia. Groups can have social, educational and/or support components and are facilitated by individuals who have received training from the Alzheimer’s Association. Find a support group near you here: Illinois Chapter Support Groups

“In the early 1990’s, my mother lived in a small town in the state of Oregon and I was 2,000 miles away in Illinois.  When she began to tell me her memory was failing, I dismissed it and tried to reassure her. However, it soon became obvious that she was right.  She had a friend named Eileen, a retired Army nurse, who became her “guardian angel,” helping with her medications and errands. The responsibility became too great for her, and since there were safety concerns, my brother and I decided to move her to Portland near where he lived.  She resisted the move, but we knew that we needed to “keep her close.” Becoming her caregiver and doing it with the dignity she deserved was very difficult. She passed away late in 1997.

I attended a local support group during the later stages of her disease and found it reassuring and helpful.  Early in 1998, I was asked if I would consider becoming a support group facilitator. I still wonder why I was chosen.  After all, I had a mathematics degree and had worked as a computer programmer. No social work education here! The local office staff trained me and I became a co-facilitator for the group I had attended a few months earlier.  I found that helping others through their Alzheimer’s journey eased my grief.

It wasn’t long before my co-facilitator moved out of the area and I was on my own. Lurinda, whose mother also had Alzheimer’s and had been a member of the group, joined me in 2004.  We have been a team ever since. We have a two-pronged approach to our meetings – education and support. The education segment is usually a DVD, but occasionally, we’ll have a guest speaker.

Twenty years later, I still find the support group meeting to be the most rewarding hours of my month.  My mother, in her illness, gave me a wonderful gift, and I hope that through her, I have been able to help others.  Facilitating a support group can be very challenging at times; but it is wonderful to see caregivers who come because they are desperate for help eventually begin to help others.

 When I was growing up, my mother took sewing classes so she could help me with my 4-H projects.  Sewing, and later quilting, became an important part of my life. In 2002, I made a small quilt that still hangs in the local office.  It is dedicated to all caregivers with the inscription, “In honor of support group members who help and encourage each other through difficult times.”  And it is also a tribute to my mother.”