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Diagnosis

  • Diagnosing cognitive impairment and dementia

    No one is sure how Alzheimer’s starts, but it is believed that gradually, and over a long period of time, brain cells are damaged and destroyed. This leads to memory loss and changes in brain function.

    Doctors reach a diagnosis of cognitive impairment or dementia through a series of medical evaluations, including a physical and neurological exam. In these exams, the doctor looks for signs of other conditions such as stroke, Parkinson’s disease or a brain tumor that may be causing problems with how the brain functions. Speech, reflexes, eye movement and muscle coordination are all evaluated. Blood tests and brain imaging are often performed to rule out other conditions as the cause of memory loss.

    Thinking skills are also assessed. Mental status tests include a mini-mental state exam, which is a series of questions that tests a person’s everyday problem-solving ability and mental skills. A mini-cog exam consists of asking the patient to perform two simple tasks that require recall.

    While it’s usually possible to definitively diagnose dementia, it’s not always possible to pinpoint the exact cause.

    Can cognitive impairment and dementia be prevented?

    A healthy lifestyle can help lower your risk of developing cognitive impairment and dementia when you are older. It can also prevent cardiovascular diseases, such as strokes and heart attacks. To reduce your risk of developing dementia and other serious health conditions, it's recommended that you: 

    • Eat healthful foods low in fat, saturated fat and cholesterol. For information on Dietary Guidelines for Americans, visit the United States Department of Agriculture’s website, choosemyplate.org

    • Get regular physical activity. Try to be physically active for at least 30 minutes most, if not all, days

    • Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight puts you at risk for high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease

    • Quit smoking. Smoking narrows your blood vessels. This puts you at risk for heart disease and stroke

    • Lower your blood pressure and cholesterol levels

    • If you have diabetes, follow your care plan and keep all well check-ups with your primary care provider. Maintain healthy blood glucose levels and watch how much alcohol you drink

    • Choose hobbies that involve your mind (chess, crossword puzzles, playing a musical instrument)

    • Keep your cholesterol and blood pressure levels in the normal ranges

    • See your primary care doctor for regular preventive checks

  • Reviewed by: Richard E. Golden, MD, Allina Health Cognitive Impairment & Memory (Dementia) Program medical director
    First published: 04/27/2016
    Last reviewed: 04/24/2016

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