Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is an irreversible brain disease. It slowly destroys a person’s mind and their ability to complete everyday tasks. There is currently no cure for AD.
Doctors diagnose AD by performing physical examinations, conducting tests, noting behavior changes, and assessing memory impairment. There are many types of doctors who can diagnose and treat AD.
If you’re worried a loved one might have AD, read on to see which doctors might be involved in treating the disease and how to find the right specialists.
Primary care doctor
If you notice changes in a loved one’s memory, thinking, or behavior, you should contact their primary care doctor. This doctor can help with the following:
- Conduct an exam to see if any physical or mental issue has caused the problems.
- Give a brief memory-screening test, such as the Abbreviated Mental Test Score. A score lower than six out of 10 suggests a need for further evaluation.
- Provide essential medical history information needed for an accurate diagnosis.
- Identify changes in the person’s memory and thinking others may miss.
The primary care doctor can refer you to the right kind of specialists as needed for diagnosing and treating AD. These may include the following:
Geriatricians are medical doctors who work with older adults. They know whether symptoms indicate a serious problem.
Geriatric psychiatrists specialize in mental and emotional problems of older adults. They can assess memory and thinking problems.
Geropsychologists specialize in the mental health needs of the elderly and their families. They can assess, intervene, and consult with you and other professionals regarding the care of a person with AD.
Neurologists are physicians who focus on abnormalities of the brain and central nervous system. They can conduct in-depth neurological examinations. Neurologists use brain scans, like CT and head MRI scans, to help make a diagnosis.
Neuropsychologists generally perform tests of memory and thinking, as well as other tests, collectively referred to as neuropsychological testing. They can help determine a person’s specific impairments and how severe they are. Neuropsychologists may also correlate test results with the results of neurological tests such as CT and MRI scans to help make a diagnosis.
Places like the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Centers have teams of specialists to help with diagnosis and care if needed. A geriatrician can review your loved one’s general health, a neuropsychologist can test their thinking and memory, and a neurologist can use scanning technology to “see” inside their brain. Tests often are done on-site, which can shorten the time required to make a diagnosis.
Although not right for everyone, clinical trials may be an option. Begin your research at a credible place, such as the Alzheimer’s Disease Clinical Trials Database. This is a joint project of the National Institute on Aging (NIA) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It’s maintained by the NIA’s Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral (ADEAR) Center.
An AD diagnosis isn’t always easy. A second opinion is sometimes part of the process. Most medical professionals understand this and should give you a referral. If not, a number of other resources are available, including the ADEAR Center, which is a service of the NIA.
Finding a specialist
Choosing a doctor or team of doctors when a loved one has AD can be difficult, as they may have unique needs in regard to time, services, or symptoms. A doctor that accepts their insurance is also an important consideration. You may wish to start by asking friends or family who may have had a loved one with AD or other dementia which providers they do or don’t recommend. If you have a primary care doctor you trust, ask that doctor if they have referrals for AD specialists.
Other sources you can tap into include:
- Alzheimer’s Association: In addition to information and support, you can find your local chapter of this association on its website. The website also has a Community Resource Finder page.
- Local senior centers: These centers often have resources and partnerships for the elderly, including services for those with AD.
- National Association of Area Agencies on Aging: This organization has many members across the country who provide services to seniors. You can search for resources in your area by entering your city and state on the homepage.
Your local hospital may also have medical resources and recommendations for an AD specialist in or around your area.
Once you’ve developed a potential list of AD providers, it’s time to contact their office and determine if they could be the right doctor for your loved one. Examples of questions to ask on the first phone call can include:
- What insurance types do you accept?
- What types of services are offered for those with AD?
- Are there any special qualifications or behavioral needs your practice works with or doesn’t work with (for instance, behavioral difficulties or sleep abnormalities)?
- How is the staff trained in AD and dementia? Do any support staff members have special credentials related to AD care?
Another deciding factor could be the level of experience the provider has in treating people with AD. Some seek board certification in gerontology or in their chosen medical field. This means the doctor has undergone continuing education and further testing to prove they have extensive knowledge on a particular subject.
Many medical practices will also offer a free “meet and greet” appointment during which you meet the medical provider and tour the office to ensure it’s the best fit for a loved one. You may also wish to ask if the provider can give you references or testimonials from their patients. Speaking to others can help you determine what it would be like to see this doctor on a regular basis.
Ultimately, the care provider should be someone you and your loved one can trust. You must have a positive feeling about the provider and how they will advocate for and treat your loved one with AD. Sometimes providers will even work on multidisciplinary teams with multiple doctors and specialists, which can mean choosing an entire practice instead of just one physician.