Alzheimer’s disease currently ranks as the sixth-leading cause of death in the US.
While deaths caused by heart disease are on the decline, those caused by Alzheimer’s continue to rise. But, with early detection, you can treat the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias and live a happy life.
“Medicare offers a free annual wellness visit for those 65 and older, where patients can request a brain health assessment,” said Lynn Meinor, Alzheimer’s State Plan Specialist for the Utah Department of Health. “Some people don’t take advantage of this opportunity because they just don’t know it exists, or because they’re afraid of the results. The Utah Department of Health is working hard to reduce the stigma so those affected can get the help they need to live their best life possible.”
While it may seem frightening to request a brain health check, not to worry! Alzheimer’s testing can come in various forms, from noninvasive exams to more intense testing.
Here are six brain health checks that may drastically improve the life of someone you love:
After reviewing the patient’s medical and family history and asking for input from family members on any mental or behavioral changes, a doctor might launch into testing by administering the first cognitive test — free for Medicare patients — called the Mini-Cog.
The Mini-Cog is a three-minute screening for cognitive impairment in older adults. The test consists of two components — a three-item recall test for memory and a simply scored clock drawing test. This test is the leading early predictor of the disease.
Because an Alzheimer’s diagnosis requires a comprehensive medical evaluation, additional testing is likely to be prescribed if your doctor has concerns from the Mini-Cog exam. Further diagnosis and possible origins of the disease may involve any number of the following tests below.
All that is required for the lab test is a sample of your blood, which is sent off to a lab for examination. If you’re squeamish, don’t worry — you’ll be in the hands of an expert phlebotomist who knows his or her way around a needle.
Some signs of Alzheimer’s can be observed in the retinas. For example, one early warning sign is the presence of beta-amyloid plaque in the brain. But before it accumulates in the brain, it can be detected in the retina. During this test, your doctor may have you drink a solution containing curcumin, then observe the reaction in your eyes. The process is completely noninvasive and may detect Alzheimer’s decades before its onset.
You may be asked to take part in a sleep test, during which your only job is exactly what you think it is: to sleep. While you slumber, the doctors will record your brain waves as well as other bodily functions, such as your breathing and blood oxygen levels. With recent research making a strong case for the connection between sleep apnea and Alzheimer’s, this test can be doubly important.
The main purpose of a neuropsychological test is to evaluate your attention span and concentration capabilities, though it may also touch on memory, comprehension, problem-solving and other cognitive functions. This test will require the most participation from you, as you will be asked to answer questions, put pegs through the right holes, and do word association, and it may take anywhere from three to six hours.
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)
The MRI is used to get a high-resolution image of the brain unachievable by X-ray or ultrasound. So, it makes sense that the process is a little more elaborate and, to some, intimidating. For starters, an MRI machine looks like a large tube, one with a moving table that slides in and out. After removing all jewelry or metallic objects from your body and changing into a gown, you’ll lie down on the table and be moved into the machine. Depending on what your doctor is looking for, you may be in there for anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour, but you’ll be perfectly safe the entire time. After a radiologist has examined your results, your doctor will fill you in.
With Alzheimer’s-related deaths on the rise, it has never been a more critical time to take advantage of Medicare’s guarantee of free annual brain health checks.
“Getting medical tests can be stressful, so naturally, asking for a brain check might push you beyond your comfort zone,” said Gary Staples, founder, owner, and administrator of Aspen Senior Care. “However uncomfortable, though, you and your family members who are worried about Alzheimer’s need to ask for testing. The good news is that testing begins with noninvasive approaches.”
Remember that testing begins with noninvasive approaches and that your doctors are looking for more than just Alzheimer’s. Call your doctor today and schedule your next visit.
A version of this article was published by the Daily Herald. It has been republished here with permission.