How is dementia diagnosed?

If you're 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's memory problems, encourage them to make an appointment and perhaps suggest that you go along with them.

Getting a diagnosis gives you and your family the best chance to prepare and plan for the future.

With treatment and support from healthcare professionals, family and friends, 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.

If possible, someone who knows you well should be with you as they can help describe any changes or problems you've noticed.

They may also be able to help you remember what we said at the appointment if this is difficult for you.

Memory problems don't necessarily mean you have dementia.  These problems can also be caused by other factors, such as:

  • depression and anxiety
  • delirium (confusion caused by medical conditions, such as infections)
  • thyroid problems
  • side effects of medication

To help rule out other causes of memory problems, your GP will organise blood tests.

You'll be asked to do a memory or cognitive test to measure any problems with your memory or ability to think clearly.

Your GP may also ask about whether you're finding it difficult to manage everyday activities, such as:

  • personal care (bathing and dressing)
  • cooking and shopping
  • paying bills

Referral to a dementia specialist

Dementia can be difficult to diagnose, especially if your symptoms are mild.

If your GP is unsure about your diagnosis, they'll refer you yo a specialist, such as:

  • a psychiatrist with experience of treating dementia (usually called an old age psychiatrist)
  • an elderly care physician (sometimes called a geriatrician)
  • a neurologist (an expert in treating conditions that affect the brain and nervous system)

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 anymore questions.  Taking the opportunity to go back can be very helpful.

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

A further, more detailed memory test is likely to be carried out.

If they're still not certain about the diagnosis, you may need to have further, more complex tests.  But most cases of dementia can be diagnosed with the above assessment.

If the diagnosis is dementia

Once you've had the necessary tests (or sometimes before the tests), your doctor should ask if you want to know your diagnosis.

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 you have or, if it's not clear, what the plan to investigate further will involve; sometimes, despite investigations, a diagnosis may not be clear, in which case the doctors will reassess you again after a period of time
  • details about symptoms and how the illness might develop
  • appropriate treatments you might be offered
  • care and support services in your area
  • support groups and voluntary organisations for people with dementia and their families and carers
  • advocacy services
  • advice about continuing to drive or your employment if this applies to you
  • where you can find financial and legal advice

You should also be given written information about dementia.

See useful links below:

Age Cymru Dementia Advocacy Service

Ongoing dementia assessment

Once you've been given a diagnosis, your GP should arrange to see you from time to time to see how you're getting on.

The memory service where you were assessed may also continue to see you in the early stages.

The GP and the specialist may also jointly prescribe medications that may be helpful in treating some of the symptoms of dementia.  But not everybody will benefit from these drugs.

An ongoing assessment of your dementia may be a good time to consider your plans for the future, perhaps including a Lasting Power of Attorney to take care of your future welfare or financial needs, or an advance statement about your future care.

Find local dementia support services