Dementia impacts a person’s ability to think, reason, or remember, and often affects everyday functioning. Since symptoms can be broad, diagnosis includes an array of exams and tests.

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Dementia is a term used to describe neurodegenerative conditions that permanently affect a person’s cognitive functions.

While dementia is associated with older people — a third of people over the age of 85 have some form of dementia, it’s not considered a typical part of aging.

Keep reading to learn more about the ways dementia is diagnosed, what the risk factors are, and what treatments may help.

Learn more about dementia.

There are several ways dementia may be diagnosed. The type of dementia a person may have and their symptoms will help a doctor determine which tests to use.

The ways dementia may be diagnosed include:

Having trouble with thinking and memory? Make an appointment to see your primary care doctor.

Along with a physical exam, your doctor will look over your health history. It may be helpful to bring somebody with you to your appointment who knows about your general health.

Your doctor will want to know:

  • when and how your symptoms started and if they impact your everyday life
  • any other conditions you have that may influence your symptoms, such as:
  • all prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medications/supplements you’re taking
  • if you have a family history of dementia

Cognitive and neurological tests are important but can’t help diagnose dementia alone. Instead, they help evaluate a person’s thinking as well as physical function.

Specialists, such as neurologists, neuropsychologists, or geriatrician doctors, usually administer these tests.

Areas for assessment include:

Your doctor may also order laboratory tests to help determine the cause of your dementia symptoms, including:

  • Blood tests: These tests can rule out infection and assess for genetic conditions or impaired organ function that might be causing or contributing to the symptoms.
  • Lumbar puncture: A lumbar puncture (spinal tap) can assess the fluid surrounding the brain (cerebrospinal fluid) to look for evidence of other causes of memory problems that could be mistaken for dementia. It may be used to rule out dementia.

Brain scans can help doctors rule out strokes, tumors, and other causes of cognitive issues. Imaging tests also let doctors look at the structure of the brain or observe its functioning.

  • Computed tomography (CT) scans: CT scans use X-rays to make images of the brain.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans: MRI scans use magnetic fields and radio waves to make cross-section images of the brain.
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scans: PET scans use radiation to capture a picture of brain activity or different areas of the brain.

The term “diagnostic criteria” refers to a specific set of signs and symptoms that allow a person to receive a diagnosis of a particular disease.

Beginning in 2013, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5) considers the term major neurocognitive disorder as the correct one to use rather than dementia.

Major neurocognitive disorder is an umbrella term for various types of dementia, each of which has its own diagnostic criteria.

Generally speaking, a person must have significant impairment in one or more cognitive areas to receive this diagnosis.

13 warning signs of dementia

Dementia signs can vary from person to person. The following are signs of dementia and should be discussed with your doctor:

  • experiencing confusion, judgment issues, memory loss
  • having speaking, writing, or reading difficulties
  • wandering in familiar places (home, neighborhood)
  • forgetting to pay bills or attend to other responsibilities
  • forgetting familiar names or fond memories
  • repeating phrases or questions
  • losing interest in activities that you once enjoyed
  • referring to familiar things with unfamiliar words
  • experiencing hallucinations, delusions, or paranoia
  • completing daily tasks much slower than normal
  • acting differently from the way you typically do
  • displaying a lack of caring for others
  • experiencing issues with balance and movement
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Treatment is individual and depends on the cause of dementia. There’s no cure for most causes of dementia. However, early diagnosis can help people find the best treatment options to help address symptoms.

The World Health Organization (WHO) explains that treatment aims to:

  • improve quality of life (physical and mental health)
  • manage related behavioral changes
  • address other diseases/illnesses a person has
  • provide support to caregivers

Reversible causes of cognitive impairments may improve if the underlying condition is treated. Conditions that may cause symptoms similar to dementia include things like:

  • medication side effects
  • hydrocephalus
  • vitamin deficiencies
  • thyroid issues

The following health conditions and lifestyle factors may increase your risk of developing dementia:

The outlook for people with dementia depends on the underlying cause.

Some causes of cognitive impairment are reversible, such as those caused by hydrocephalus, vitamin deficiencies, or medication use. Others, such as those caused by diseases or brain injuries, may get worse over time.

What are the most common types of dementia?

The most common types of dementia include:

How many people have dementia?

The WHO estimates that around 55 million people worldwide have dementia.

Do all people with dementia have multiple risk factors?

No. While 34% of people with dementia have four or more risk factors, the CDC reports that 9% of people don’t have any identifiable risk factors.

Dementia is a common issue for people over age 65, but it’s not an inevitable part of aging.

Make an appointment with your doctor if you have difficulties with thinking, memory, or any other aspect of your cognition.

For some people early diagnosis may help improve or reverse dementia. Otherwise, early diagnosis can help you get the support and treatment you need to improve your quality of life.