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Diagnosing and Managing Dementia

Dementia is not a disease in itself, but rather a word used to describe a group of symptoms that occur when brain cells stop working properly. Symptoms often develop over years, and early signs are often missed or mistaken for the natural ageing process.

It can be debilitating and upsetting, and whilst there is currently no cure for dementia, getting the right diagnosis is hugely important. It allows for the person with dementia to get the specialist support they need and sometimes receive treatments which might help with their symptoms.

Addressing concerns about memory and planning for the future can be scary, but there is a lot of information and guidance available. Read on for more about what to look for…

There are different conditions which can cause dementia. Alzheimer’s dementia is the most common, causing over 60% of cases of dementia in the elderly. Other causes include vascular dementia (25% of cases), Lewy body dementia (15%), and frontotemporal dementia.

You can find out more about the different types of dementia through Alzheimers Research UK.

Dementia mostly affects people over the age of 65. Early onset dementia can affect those under 65, however, only 3 in every 100 people with dementia fall into this category. In the UK alone, half a million people are estimated as living with dementia – many without a diagnosis.

The progression of dementia differs from person to person, but common early symptoms to look for include:

  • Confusion about which day it is, and what the time is
  • Forgetting where they have put things
  • Getting lost when outside, and becoming disorientated
  • Changes in mood, being irritable, and having a lack of interest in things
  • Struggling to find the right word, and repeating themselves
  • Forgetting recent events; including the names and faces of people they have met

Symptoms get worse over time, but the speed in which this can happen varies on an individual basis.

Diagnosing Dementia

If you are concerned about your memory or worried about a relative or friend, you should encourage them to seek support and advice. GPs are specially trained to recognise the symptoms of dementia, and will be able to refer to specialist centres for further tests if they feel it is needed.

There is no specific test for dementia, so tests may be carried out to check that the symptoms are not being caused by other conditions. For example, a water (urinary tract) infection commonly causes confusion.

The doctor or nurse might ask questions relating to memory, perform a basic physical examination, ask for blood tests, or check a urine sample for infection. Depending on the results, they might ask a specialist at a “Memory Clinic” for their opinion, if such a centre is available locally. If this is not available, a neurologist or psychiatrist might be asked. A scan of the brain is usually performed before any diagnosis of dementia is made.

Looking ahead…

Lots of research is being carried out looking at dementia, including what we can do to lower our chances of developing it. As people get older their risk increases – we cannot change this, but some things we can change include:

  • Not smoking
  • Exercising regularly
  • Controlling cholesterol, blood pressure, and diabetes
  • Eating a balanced diet which includes fruit and vegetables
  • Not drinking more alcohol than recommended

Dementia is a very big topic, if you want more further information please visit these excellent websites:

If you are interested in becoming more dementia aware, you may want to think about becoming a “Dementia Friend” –

By Dr Craig Rosenbloom