Dementia guide

Getting a dementia diagnosis

Living with dementia

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.

Find out more about the tests used to diagnose dementia.

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 computerised tomography (CT) scan, or preferably a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan.

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 have 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
  • 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 any treatment that might be helpful.

Depending on the stage of the condition or any other issues observed by the doctor, you may be prescribed treatment such as anti-dementia drugs. However, not everybody will benefit from these drugs.

Last reviewed: 14/02/2013

Next review due: 14/02/2015


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