Diagnosing dementia

How is dementia diagnosed?

Although many people are reluctant to admit they are experiencing the symptoms of dementia, getting a diagnosis is important. An accurate diagnosis will enable them to access available treatments, obtain the right level of care and support and allows them to plan for the future. However diagnosing dementia is difficult, particularly in the earlier stages of the disease, because:

  • There is no single test that will definitively diagnose dementia.
  • The earlier symptoms of dementia can overlap with other conditions such as depression or a urine infection, which can cause similar symptoms.
  • Everybody experiences dementia differently and the type of dementia will have a significant impact on the earlier symptoms.

People often ask, ‘what tests are used to diagnose dementia?’ or ‘how is a person diagnosed with dementia?’ But there is no single test that can definitively diagnose dementia rather a number of stages involved as follows:

Stage 1 – GP Visit

When someone is worried about their memory or is experiencing some of the other symptoms of dementia such as confusion, feeling anxious or depressed the first step to getting a diagnosis would be to visit their GP. It is best if they are accompanied by a close relative or friend who is aware of the changes that have occurred.

The GP will carry out a number of actions including:

  1. Review the person’s medical history and ask questions about their symptoms and how long ago they appeared.
  2. Carryout a physical examination. This will include taking blood samples to rule out illnesses such as a urine infection which can cause similar symptoms as dementia.
  3. Perform a cognitive test, often the General Practitioner assessment of Cognition (GPCOG) test, click here for more details.

These tests will rule out other possible causes of the symptoms. If the GP is concerned that dementia may be the cause he will make a referral to a specialist.

Stage 2 – Referral to a specialist

If a GP is concerned that someone may have dementia they will refer them for further assessment to a specialist or Memory Clinic. Where they are referred will depend on their age, symptoms and the services available where they live, but may include either a:

  • Psychiatrist who specialises in mental health, sometimes specialising in the mental health of older people (old age psychiatrist)
  • Geriatrician who specialises in the illnesses and physical disabilities of older people.
  • Neurologist who specialises in diseases of the brain and nervous system. Neurologists tend to see people with rarer types of dementia or people with early onset dementia.

The specialist will carry out a more in depth assessment than the GP as follows:

  1. The specialist will review in more detail a person’s medical history including the symptoms and the rate of progression.
  2. They may carry out any physical examinations missed by the doctor.
  3. Carry out further more in depth memory and cognition tests, there are many different types of test, for more details click here.
  4. Perform brain scans. Click here for more details on the types of brain scans available.

If a person is diagnosed with dementia any support and care they need will be organised between the NHS and Social Services. Following her diagnosis Mum’s care was transferred from her GP to her consultant psychiatrist i.e. the specialist who made the diagnosis; she was assigned a community psychiatric nurse (CPN) and an approved social worker (ASW).

So while many people are reluctant to obtain a diagnosis of dementia, including Mum, the advice, help and support that was provided by Mum’s assigned team (see below) was invaluable not only to Mum (although she didn’t necessarily realise or appreciate it) but to us, her family, as we were really struggling to cope.

  • Prescribed medication to try and improve the symptoms of dementia and alleviate anxiety and depression.
  • Made practical suggestions on how to improve safety within the home such as pressure mats on the door so we knew if Mum had left the house.
  • Provided nutritional advice and prescribed nutritional supplements when we were struggling to get Mum to eat.
  • Gave advice on any benefits we were entitled to including the Attendance Allowance.
  • Provided any objective opinion and advised us when Mum needed to be hospitalised for her own safety.
  • Helped in the selection of a suitable care home when the time came.

2 thoughts on “Diagnosing dementia

  1. Very helpful and informative website and thank you for the work you have put into it. Found it through your poetry!

    My wife has dementia and attended a specialist a couple of years ago but I really have no idea precisely what type has developed – only that she has many, but not all, of the symptoms. The pandemic coming along when it did has not made life easier putting us into a lock-down situation. Busy business and professional life as we knew it seems to have come to a shuddering halt. I also feel that it is “early days” – still manageable by me without external help. Assisting with personal hygiene and getting dressed (nickers on before trousers, trousers not inside out or clothes wrong way round!) A couple of worrying wandering episodes. Disappearing memory of names and dates. But she is remaining pleasant and reasonably happy in herself although not much seems to be happening in there.

    1. Hi,

      Thanks for the feedback, glad you found the site useful.

      I am very sorry to hear about your wife, I can not imagine what it must be like to care for someone living with dementia through the pandemic. When caring for Mum one of my main objectives was to keep her content as she was quite agitated for much of the time. Things like had she got her jumper on inside out became almost irrelevant as long as she was happy so I am glad that your wife seems content, that really is the main thing.

      Thanks again for the feedback and I hope things go ok for you and your family going forward.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.