Should I be tested to see if I'm likely to get Alzheimer's disease since my mother had it?

1 answer | Last updated: Nov 18, 2016
A fellow caregiver asked...

My mother suffered from Alzheimer's disease. I had really hoped being a smoker and drinker may have accelerated this. However I now find myself (68), having many of these symptoms. Do you recommend the test now available to determine if you are likely to have this disease?

Expert Answers

Paula Spencer Scott is the author of Surviving Alzheimer's. A Met Life Foundation Journalists in Aging fellow, she writes extensively about health and caregiving; four of her family members have had dementia.

Deciding whether to be tested for Alzheimer's is an individual decision, and one that your doctor can help you make. Here are some things to consider:

First, if you simply were worrying about the possibility of Alzheimer's because your mother had it, this alone isn't necessarily reason to have testing. There isn't a single test. Diagnosis is made by evaluating symptoms and eliminating other possibilities. There are two types of testing: genetic tests and cognitive (thinking) tests. Genetic tests would tell you if you carry a particular gene variation that is associated with Alzheimer's. However, this genetic link accounts for only a small percentage of cases of the disease. More commonly associated with the possibility of developing dementia are lifestyle issues such as being overweight, smoking, having diabetes or cardiovascular problems, or a history of brain injury. A doctor or genetic counselor could advise you on the pros and cons of having testing done if you have a significant family history of Alzheiemr's and reason to worry about the gene.

Cognitive tests are appropriate for someone who is showing possible symptoms such as memory loss or confusional thinking. If you feel you are having these symptoms, talking to your doctor is a great idea. He or she can work to pinpoint their actual cause -- things like stress, depression, and medications can cause symptoms that seem like Alzheimer's. Many people in midlife worry about memory loss but do not actually have Alzheimer's or anything wrong at all. Confirming this sets a mind at ease. If it does seem to be dementia, then early diagnosis is a useful gift of time that can be used to possibly slow the disease progress with medication and other lifestyle changes, and to take steps to prepare for a comfortable later life.

The prospect of what you might find out can be unnerving, but taking some kind of action is almost always better than doing nothing and worrying.