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Should you be tested for Alzheimer's disease?

A PET scan can help diagnose the disease, but often isn't necessary and poses some risks

Published: July 2013

Forgetting what you were about to say or where you put your keys is normal, especially as you get older. But many people worry that such lapses are the first signs of Alzheimer’s disease, and more of them are turning to a high-tech—and expensive—imaging test called a PET scan to find out.

That’s often a bad idea, our medical experts say, in part because when used inappropriately it can lead to unnecessary treatment and needless exposure to radiation. In fact, the Society of Nuclear Medicine and Molecular Imaging, a professional group for health care providers who perform the test, is so concerned about its overuse that it recently included PET scans in a campaign that highlights unnecessary and sometimes harmful medical care. The initiative, Choosing Wisely, is led by the ABIM Foundation and Consumer Reports.

Testing drawbacks

Signs of Alzheimer’s disease include plaque deposits and abnormal tangles of brain fibers. A PET scanner, which creates three-dimensional images of your brain, can find those abnormalities. It involves injecting a radioactive drug into your blood to highlight the deposits on the scan. If it doesn’t show plaque deposits, then you probably don’t have Alzheimer’s.

But rushing to take the test without having a thorough medical exam is a mistake for a few reasons:

Not all plaque deposits mean Alzheimer’s disease. People can have plaque deposits without any substantial memory loss, says Satoshi Minoshima, M.D., Ph.D., vice chair for research in the 
department of radiology at the University of Washington in Seattle. And having deposits doesn’t necessarily mean you will later develop Alzheimer’s. So a worrisome result on the PET scan might cause needless anxiety, explains Minoshima, who is also a leader of the Society of Nuclear Medicine and Molecular Imaging.

Memory problems can stem from other health problems. Alzheimer’s is the leading cause of memory loss and thinking problems among older people. But other medical conditions—such as a stroke, an underactive thyroid, drug
interactions and side effects, alcoholism, or vitamin B12 deficiency—can cause similar symptoms. Unlike Alzheimer’s, those can be treated. So your doctor should rule them out before ordering a PET scan. That can involve some blood tests and, in some cases, possibly an MRI or CT. Your doctor should also ask about the drugs and supplements you take.

The test can expose you to unnecessary risks and costs. A PET scan exposes you to a small amount of radiation. Since those effects can add up over 
time, it’s best to avoid it when you can. In addition, the test can cost several thousand dollars and is currently not covered by Medicare or private insurance for Alzheimer’s testing.

When testing makes sense

If you have serious memory loss and your doctor can’t find a clear cause, then a PET scan can be a reasonable next step. Learning that you have early-stage Alzheimer’s can allow you and your family to consider medication and plan for the future. But note that our Best Buy Drugs report on Alzheimer’s drugs found that they don’t work well for most people and often cause side effects.

Protect your memory

Some research suggests that the following steps might help you to preserve your memory as you age.

Know your numbers. The same risk factors for heart disease also threaten your brain. So take steps to control your cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood glucose levels.

Exercise. Regular exercise not only controls heart risk factors but may 
also help your brain cells grow, some 
research suggests.

Stay connected. People who maintain strong family ties and friendships, volunteer, or attend religious services appear to maintain their cognitive function as they age compared with 
those who don’t.

Challenge your mind. A healthy brain is a working brain. So join a book or theater club, go to lectures, play board games, or learn a new language or how to play a musical instrument.

Get enough sleep. Sleep helps you think clearly, react quickly, and feel alert. So aim to get at least 7 hours of sleep 
every night.

Editor's Note:

A version of this article first appeared in the monthly newsletter Consumer Reports on Health. 

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