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Medical History and Physical Exam for Dementia or Alzheimer's Disease

Topic Overview

A person's medical history and a physical exam are important parts of the evaluation when the person has symptoms of dementia or Alzheimer's disease.

Medical history

The doctor will ask questions during a medical history to assess a person's past and current overall health and to find out how well the person functions.

This process may be complicated if the person isn't able to remember important parts of his or her medical history or isn't aware of the memory loss. A family member can be very helpful in providing information about the person's symptoms, such as when the symptoms were first noticed, how quickly they developed, and whether they have continued to get worse.

Other important information in a medical history includes:

  • Other medical problems the person has or has had, such as a stroke, Parkinson's disease, HIV infection, depression, a head injury, heart disease, or lipid disorders (problems with cholesterol levels). In some cases, illnesses can cause confusion or other signs of dementia.
  • Whether there is a history of Alzheimer's disease or dementia in the family.
  • The person's family, social, cultural, and educational background, as well as any recent unusual events in the person's life. These things can influence how a person performs on a mental status test. And some experts believe that they may affect the risk of dementia.
  • What medicines the person is taking. Some medicines can contribute to memory loss or mental impairment. This side effect of certain drugs is an easy problem to correct but is often overlooked as the cause of symptoms.
  • History of alcohol or drug abuse.
  • Mood changes, hallucinations, or unusual behavior (such as lack of inhibition).
  • Recent problems with forgetfulness.

Physical exam

The doctor will do a complete physical exam to look for conditions that could cause dementia. He or she also will assess risk factors for dementia, such as alcohol use and heart disease.

The person will also have a complete neurological exam to look for signs of a stroke, such as trouble speaking, hearing, or moving.

Daily tasks

The doctor will ask about a change in the person's ability to perform daily tasks. The person or relative may be asked whether the person can:

  • Bathe and dress himself or herself and use the toilet.
  • Cook meals.
  • Manage money.
  • Do daily household tasks.
  • Take medicines on schedule.
  • Drive safely and get around in usually familiar areas.

Related Information

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Anne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine
Myron F. Weiner, MD - Psychiatry, Neurology
Last Revised October 29, 2012

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