Dementia

About Dementia

If you're becoming increasingly forgetful, particularly if you're over the age of 65, it may be a good idea to talk to your GP about the early signs of dementia.

As you get older, you may find that memory loss becomes a problem. It's normal for your memory to be affected by age, stress, tiredness, or certain illnesses and medications. This can be annoying if it happens occasionally, but if it's affecting your daily life or is worrying you or someone you know, you should seek help from your GP.

How common is dementia?

According to the Alzheimers Society there are around 800,000 people in the UK with dementia. One in three people over 65 will develop dementia, and two-thirds of people with dementia are women.

The number of people with dementia is increasing because people are living longer. It is estimated that by 2021, the number of people with dementia in the UK will have increased to around 1 million.

What is dementia?

Dementia is a common condition that affects about 800,000 people in the UK. Your risk of developing dementia increases as you get older, and the condition usually occurs in people over the age of 65.

Dementia is a syndrome (a group of related symptoms) associated with an ongoing decline of the brain and its abilities. This includes problems with:

  • memory loss
  • thinking speed
  • mental agility
  • language
  • understanding
  • judgement

People with dementia can become apathetic or uninterested in their usual activities, and have problem controlling their emotions. They may also find social situations challenging, lose interest in socialising and aspects of their personality may change.

A person with dementia may lose empathy (understanding and compassion), they may see or hear things that other people do (hallucinations), or they may make false claims or statements.

As dementia affects a person's mental abilities, they may find planning and organising difficult. Maintaining independence may also become a problem. A person with dementia will therefore usually need help from friends or relatives, including help with decision making.

Your GP will discuss the possible causes of memory loss with you, including dementia. Other symptoms can include:

  • increasing difficulties with tasks and activities that require concentration and planning
  • depression
  • changes in personality and mood
  • periods of mental confusion
  • difficulty finding the right words

Most types of dementia can't be cured, but if it is detected early there are ways you can slow it down and maintain mental function.

Why is it important to get a diagnosis?

An early diagnosis can help people with dementia get the right treatment and support, and help those close to them to prepare and plan for the future. With treatment and support, many people are able to lead active fulfilled lives.

If you are worried about your memory or think you may have dementia, it's a good idea to see your GP. If you're worried about someone else, you should encourage them to make an appointment and perhaps suggest that you go along with them.

Just because you are forgetful, it doesn't mean you have dementia. Memory problems can also be caused by depression, stress, drug side effects, or other health problems. Your GP will be able to run through some simple checks and either reassure you, give you a diagnosis or refer you to a specialist for further tests.

A diagnosis of dementia affects both the person with the condition and those close to them. An early diagnosis gives you both the best chance to prepare and plan for the future, as well as receive any treatment that may be possible. With treatment and support, many people are able to lead active, fulfilling lives.

What to expect when you see your GP about dementia

Your GP will ask about your symptoms and other aspects of your health, and will give you a physical examination. The doctor will organise some blood tests and ask about any medication you are taking, as these can sometimes cause symptoms similar to dementia.

You will also be asked some questions or given some mental exercises to measure any problems with your memory or your ability to think clearly.

Referral to a dementia specialist

Dementia can be difficult to diagnose, especially if your symptoms are only mild. If your GP is unsure about your diagnosis, they will refer you to a specialist such as a neurologist (an expert in treating conditions that affect the brain and nervous system), an elderly care physician, or a psychiatrist with experience of treating dementia.

The specialist may be based in a memory clinic alongside other professionals who are experts in diagnosing, caring for and advising people with dementia and their families.

It's important to make good use of your consultation with the specialist. Write down questions you want to ask, make a note of any medical terms the doctor might use, and ask if you can come back if you think of any more questions you want to ask. Taking the opportunity to go back can be very helpful.

The specialist will organise further tests, which may include brain scans such as a CT scan or preferably a MRI.

If they are still not certain about the diagnosis, you may need further brain scans, a lumbar puncture to measure levels of certain proteins in the spinal fluid or, rarely, an operation to remove a small sample of brain tissue for testing.

Getting your dementia diagnosis

Once you've had the necessary tests, your doctor should ask you if you wish to know your diagnosis and if there is anyone else you would like to be told.

They should explain what having dementia might mean for you, and should give you time to talk more about the condition and ask any questions you may have.

Unless you decide otherwise, your doctor or a member of their team should explain to you and your family:

  • the type of dementia that you have, or if it is not clear, what the plan to further investigate will entail. Sometimes, despite investigations, a diagnosis may not be clear, in which case the doctors will review you again after a period of time to reassess you
  • details about symptoms and how the illness might develop
  • treatments
  • care and support services in your area
  • support groups and voluntary organisations for people with dementia and their families and carers
  • advocacy services
  • where you can find financial and legal advice

You should also be given written information about dementia.

Questions to ask about your dementia diagnosis

  • please tell me about the type of dementia that I may have
  • please give me more details about the tests or investigations I should have
  • how long will I have to wait until I have these tests?
  • how long will it take to get the results of these tests?
  • what will happen after I get the results?

Ongoing dementia assessment

Once you have been given a diagnosis, your GP should arrange to see you from time to time to see how you're getting on. Because dementia is a progressive condition, the doctor may arrange another appointment with the specialist, perhaps after six months or a year. The GP and the specialist may also jointly prescribe medications that may be helpful in treating some of the symptoms of dementia.

However, not everybody will benefit from these drugs.

Additional information