The importance of a diagnosis
Whether you’re concerned about your own memory or that of a loved one, it's important to get a proper diagnosis from a doctor. The idea of dementia being confirmed may seem very frightening but an early diagnosis has many benefits. It can give you time to plan ahead and access treatments and support. Seeing your doctor can also rule out other possible causes of confusion and memory problems.
Visit your GP
The GP should be the first port of call if you have concerns about memory problems or any of the symptoms mentioned in What is dementia?.
The GP should rule out other causes of memory loss (for example, head injury stress, medication with side effects, possible infections or any thyroid or vitamin deficiencies). They might also carry out a physical examination and tests to assess mental ability.
Depending on your age and other medical conditions or symptoms, the GP will probably refer you to a specialist – such as a neurologist, an old-age psychiatrist or the local memory assessment service – for a more thorough assessment. A specialist service or memory clinic will have more knowledge and experience about the condition, as well as have access to specialist testing (such as brain scans) and support services.
If you want a referral but the GP doesn’t offer it, discuss it with the doctor – they may have a good reason not to refer. If, after talking to the GP, you still feel that you want a referral, you may wish to get a second opinion from another doctor at a separate appointment.
Preparing for a visit to the doctor
If you are supporting a loved one who’s experiencing memory problems, it can be helpful to make some notes before the appointment. Write down any potential symptoms you have noticed, including specific examples of things that worry you. Make a note of when the symptoms started and how much they have changed since then. And include relevant information about your loved one’s medical history.
It can be useful to send these notes to the doctor in advance – this avoids talking across your loved one about their condition in front of their doctor. It is also helpful if the person does not want anyone to come with them to the appointment.
This appointment is likely to be stressful for the person with memory problems. But you can support them by making notes of what was said and finding out what further steps the doctor recommends and what help is available. Read our Caring for someone with dementia article for more tips.
Referral to a memory clinic
Once you’ve been referred to a specialist, an assessment might be carried out by a consultant-led team in a hospital or by a mental health team visiting you at home. It’s likely to involve taking a detailed medical history, physical examination, mental tests and scans. The specialist team will provide information and support about diagnosis and potential medication, which may improve symptoms.
Part of the diagnosis is made by excluding other conditions, so it’s important for the consultant to get the full picture. Carers, relatives and friends can help to provide this detailed background information. It might be helpful to keep a diary of what’s been happening or think about examples when you have noticed memory loss, and bring some notes to the meeting with the specialist.
These may consist of pen and paper-type tests, and questions focusing on memory as well as verbal and non-verbal abilities. These tests can help to determine the type of problem a person has, particularly in the early stages. The assessment can also be used as a benchmark to measure any changes over time.
The professional carrying out the assessment may refer you for a brain scan. The scan can help with getting a dementia diagnosis but also discover if factors such as strokes or a brain tumour could be behind memory problems.
Confirming the diagnosis
The specialist team carrying out the assessment should send the results to the GP. Ask the doctor to send you a copy of any correspondence and appointment details. This request should be put in the patient notes. In most cases, the GP or consultant will make an appointment with you to discuss the results, and what they mean. They may also ask a close family member to be present.
If dementia is diagnosed then the doctor will help you and your family to understand the impact of the diagnosis, and the team of professionals working with them will also be able to offer advice.
A dementia diagnosis can be a big shock and lead to a range of emotions such as fear, sadness and disbelief. But some people find it a relief to finally have an explanation for the changes they’ve been noticing.
Our Living with dementia article has tips on how to come to terms with the diagnosis and suggestions for adaptations that can help in the early stages.
Dementia generally be divided into early, moderate and later stages. We explore what to expect at each stage.
We look at the different options to explore when planning dementia care.
Dementia is life changing, but it shouldn’t stop you from living an independent life for as long as possible.