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.
Read more about:
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 they've noticed.
They may also be able to help you remember what was 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 also 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
Read more about the tests used to diagnose dementia.
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 to 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 any more questions. Taking the opportunity to go back can be very helpful.
A further, more detailed memory test is also 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 assessments.
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.
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 dementia information and support services.
Dementia is one of the health conditions that people are most frightened of.
According to a study by Alzheimer's Society, that fear means more than half of people put off getting a dementia diagnosis for up to a year.
And almost two-thirds of people surveyed felt a diagnosis would mean their life was over.
But an accurate early, or timely, diagnosis of dementia can have many benefits.
- an explanation for symptoms that may have been worrying you or your family
- access to treatments that can improve symptoms and slow down the progress of the disease
- access to advice and support
- time to prepare for the future and plan ahead
When to see your GP
As you get older, you may find memory loss becomes a problem.
But dementia isn't just about memory loss. It can also affect the way you speak, think, feel and behave.
If you, or someone you know, are experiencing problems that are affecting daily life and these problems have been going on for at least 6 months, it's a good idea to talk to a GP.
Find out more about how to get a dementia diagnosis.
How your GP can help
Your GP will ask about your symptoms and other aspects of your health, and will give you a physical examination.
Memory problems don't necessarily mean you have dementia.
These problems can also be caused by other factors, such as:
- health conditions, including thyroid problems, stroke, diabetes
- drinking too much alcohol
- side effects of medication
- depression and anxiety
Your GP will organise blood tests to help rule out other causes of memory problems.
You'll also be asked to do a memory or cognitive test. Early symptoms of memory and thinking problems can be mild.
If your GP is uncertain about the results, you may be referred to a specialist at a memory clinic.
Find out more about the tests for diagnosing dementia.
If the diagnosis is dementia
A dementia diagnosis can come as a shock, but over time some people come to view it in a positive way.
This is because although at present there's no cure for dementia, there are ways you can slow it down and maintain mental function if it's diagnosed in the early stages.
A diagnosis can also help people with dementia get the right information and support, and help those close to them prepare and plan for the future.
With the right support and encouragement, those who have a dementia diagnosis can take an active role in managing their condition.
It's important to remember that everyone experiences dementia and its progression in their own way.
With treatment and support, many people are able to lead active, fulfilled lives.
Read more about what to do if you've just been diagnosed with dementia.
A diagnosis is also important for research and understanding more about the causes of dementia. Research can also help develop new treatments.
If you have a diagnosis of dementia or memory problems that aren't severe enough to be diagnosed as dementia, you may be able to help scientists better understand the disease by taking part in research.
There are dozens of dementia research projects going on around the world, and many of these are based in the UK.
If you're a carer for someone with dementia, you can also take part in research.
You can sign up to take part in trials on the NHS Join Dementia Research website.
If you've just been diagnosed with dementia, you may be feeling numb, scared and unable to take everything in. Give yourself a little time to adjust.
If you can, talk to family and friends about your feelings around a dementia diagnosis.
Once the initial feelings have passed, it's time to try to move on and create an action plan for the future, while you're still able to make clear decisions for yourself.
This page covers:
Find out more about how to get an assessment for a person with dementia. For further information, read Alzheimer's Society's guide to care and support assessments.
Services and support
Find out what's available locally so that you're prepared and able to call on this support as and when you need it.
Services arranged by local authorities vary between areas but may include home care services, equipment and adaptations for your home. Some services, such as community nursing, are arranged through the NHS. Ask your hospital consultant or GP for details.
Read more about what to expect from social services and the NHS, and where to find sources of help and support for people with dementia.
Make a will
It's a good idea to make a will, if you haven't already. This ensures that when you die, your money and possessions go to the people you choose.
A person with dementia can still make or change a will, provided you can show that you understand what you're doing and what the effects will be. Your solicitor can advise if this is the case.
Read more about dementia and legal issues, including making a will.
Put your papers in order
Make sure all your important papers can be found easily. These might include bank and building society statements, mortgage or rental documents, insurance policies, your will, tax and pension details, bills and guarantees.
Consider setting up direct debits or standing orders for your regular bills. This means they'll be paid automatically from your bank account each month.
Read more about managing someone else's banking.
Make sure you're claiming all the benefits you're entitled to. In particular, check whether:
your carer (if you have one) is eligible for Carer's Allowance
Other benefits you may be eligible for include income support, housing benefit, council tax relief and pension credit.
Lasting power of attorney
You can appoint one or more people as "attorneys" to manage your affairs, including your finances, property and medical treatment, should it become necessary. You can choose anybody you trust to be your attorney – usually a close friend or family member – but they must be over 18.
Read more about power of attorney.
Advance care planning
You may wish to make an advance care plan so you can have a say in your future medical care or where you would prefer to be cared for.
Making an advance decision enables you to refuse, in advance, a specific medical treatment or procedure should you become unable to decide for yourself.
Find out about advance care planning.
A diagnosis of dementia doesn't necessarily mean you have to stop driving immediately, but you are legally required to inform the DVLA and your car insurance company promptly.
The DVLA will contact your hospital consultant or GP for further information on whether you can continue to drive safely.
Read the Alzheimer's Society factsheet on driving and dementia (PDF, 941kb) for more.
Take care of your health
It's important to look after your physical and mental health when you have dementia:
Eat a healthy diet.
Have regular dental, eyesight and hearing check-ups.
See your GP if you feel unwell, as things like chest or urine infections can make you feel very confused if not treated promptly.
Read more about living well with dementia.
Create your life story
Memory books can be a helpful way of stimulating your memory and reconnecting you with your loved ones in the future.
Essentially, it's a "This Is Your Life" compilation of photographs, notes and keepsakes from your childhood through to the present day. It can be either a physical book or a digital version.
You may also want to create a digital or online "playlist" of your favourite musical soundtracks.
Dementia books on prescription
Reading Well Books on Prescription for dementia offers information for people diagnosed with dementia, as well as their relatives and carers. GPs and other health professionals can recommend titles from a list of 25 books on dementia. The books are available for anyone to borrow free of charge from their local library.
The books are also available to people who may be worrying about dementia symptoms but don't have a formal diagnosis.
Read more about the Reading Well Books on Prescription for dementia titles.
There's no single test for dementia. A diagnosis is based on a combination of assessments and tests. These may be done by a GP or a specialist at a memory clinic or hospital.
This page covers:
Taking a history
This is usually done by a GP. If you're referred to a specialist, a more detailed history will be taken.
It helps if someone who knows you well is also with you, as they can help describe any changes or problems they've noticed.
The doctor will:
- ask how and when symptoms started and whether they're affecting daily life
- check whether any existing conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, depression or stroke, are being properly managed
- review any medication you're taking, including prescribed medicines, those bought over the counter from pharmacies, and any alternative products, such as vitamin supplements
Mental ability tests to diagnose dementia
People with symptoms of dementia are given tests to check their mental abilities, such as memory or thinking.
These tests are known as cognitive assessments, and may be done initially by a GP.
There are several different tests. Probably the most common one used by GPs is the General Practitioner Assessment of Cognition (GPCOG).
Although these tests can't diagnose dementia, they may show there are memory difficulties that need further investigation.
Most tests involve a series of pen-and-paper tests and questions, each of which carries a score.
These tests assess a number of different mental abilities, including:
- short- and long-term memory
- concentration and attention span
- language and communication skills
- awareness of time and place (orientation)
It's important to remember that test scores may be influenced by a person's level of education.
For example, someone who can't read or write very well may have a lower score, but they may not have dementia.
Similarly, someone with a higher level of education may achieve a higher score, but still have dementia.
Blood tests to check for other conditions
Your GP will arrange for blood tests to help exclude other causes of symptoms that can be confused with dementia.
In most cases, these blood tests will check:
- liver function
- kidney function
- thyroid function
- haemoglobin A1c (to check for diabetes)
- vitamin B12 and folate levels
If your doctor thinks you may have an infection, they may also ask you to do a urine test or other investigations.
Read more about blood tests.
Dementia brain scans
Brain scans are often used for diagnosing dementia once the simpler tests have ruled out other problems.
Like memory tests, on their own brain scans can't diagnose dementia, but are used as part of the wider assessment.
Not everyone will need a brain scan, particularly if the tests and assessments show that dementia is a likely diagnosis.
An MRI scan is recommended to:
- help confirm a diagnosis of dementia and the type of disease causing the dementia
- provide detailed information about the blood vessel damage that occurs in vascular dementia
- show shrinkage in specific areas of the brain – for example, the frontal and temporal lobes are mainly affected by shrinkage in frontotemporal dementia, while usually just the temporal lobes are affected in the early stages of Alzheimer's
A CT scan can be used to check for signs of stroke or a brain tumour. But it can't provide detailed information about the structure of the brain.
Even if a brain scan doesn't show any obvious changes, this doesn't mean someone doesn't have dementia.
Other scans and procedures to diagnose dementia
Other types of scan, such as a SPECT scan or a PET scan, may be recommended if the result of your MRI or CT scan is uncertain.
Most people won't need these types of scans, however.
Both SPECT and PET scans look at how the brain functions, and can pick up abnormalities with the blood flow in the brain.
If a specialist is worried that epilepsy may be causing the dementia symptoms, an EEG may be taken to record the brain's electrical signals (brain activity), but this is rare.Find dementia information and support services
If you have dementia, or you are looking after someone who has dementia, you are likely to face many practical issues in your daily life.
People with dementia can feel vulnerable as their condition progresses and they increasingly rely on other people to do things for them. It is important that people who have dementia feel reassured and supported, while retaining some level of independence.
For more information, read staying independent with dementia.
Although some symptoms are common to many people with dementia, each person's experience of the disease and how they cope with it will be different.
Helping someone with dementia with everyday tasks
When a person with dementia finds that their mental abilities are declining, they're likely to feel anxious, stressed and scared. They may be aware of their increasing clumsiness and inability to remember things, and this can be very frustrating and upsetting for them.
If you are looking after someone with dementia, you can help them feel more secure by creating a regular daily routine in a relaxed environment, where they're encouraged and not criticised.
Involving the person you look after in everyday tasks may make them feel useful and improve their sense of self-worth. They could help with the shopping, laying the table or sweeping leaves in the garden, for example.
As the illness progresses, these tasks may become harder for them to manage independently, and you may need to give them more support.
How you can help
The main way you can help someone with dementia is by offering support sensitively and try not to be critical of what they do. It can be very important for the person with dementia to feel that they're still useful.
In the early stages, memory aids can be used around the home to help the person remember where things are.
For example, you could put pictures on cupboard doors of what's inside, such as cups and saucers. This may help to trigger their memory and enable them to retain their independence a little longer.
Keeping up hobbies and interests when someone has dementia
Many people with dementia will still enjoy their hobbies or interests. For example, if they like cooking, they may be able to help make a meal. Going for a walk or gardening is a simple way to get some exercise and a sense of achievement. Or they may prefer listening to music or playing a board game. Caring for a pet cat or dog can bring a lot of pleasure to some people.
If the person you care for was very sociable and outgoing, or if they have a large family, they may really enjoy visits from one or two family members or friends. However, they may struggle to keep up with conversations if they have a lot of visitors at the same time.
Maintaining good health and nutrition in someone with dementia
It's important that the person you care for has a healthy, balanced diet and gets some exercise. The longer they stay fit and healthy, the better their quality of life will be. If you want some easy exercises, try these sitting exercises.
If the person you care for doesn't eat enough or eats unhealthy food, they can become susceptible to other illnesses. People with dementia can become more confused if they get ill.
Common food-related problems for people with dementia include:
- not recognising foods
- forgetting what food they like
- refusing or spitting out food
- resisting being fed
- asking for strange food combinations
This behaviour is usually due to confusion, or irritation in the mouth caused by dental problems, rather than wanting to be awkward. If you're concerned about the person's eating behaviour, speak to your GP.
How you can help
Involve the person you care for. For example, if they cannot feed themselves, you could put the cutlery in their hand and help guide it to their mouth. You could also involve them in preparing food, if they are able to.
Try to stay calm. If you feel stressed at mealtimes, the person you care for will probably be stressed too. Make sure you have plenty of time for meals, so you can deal with any problems that arise.
Try to accommodate behaviour changes. It's likely that the person you care for will change their eating patterns and habits over time. Being aware of this and trying to be flexible will make mealtimes less stressful for both of you.
If you think the person you care for may have health or dental problems, get help from your GP or dentist. You could also contact a local carers' group to speak to other people who may have experienced similar difficulties.
If the person with dementia smokes, replace matches with disposable lighters to lower the risk of them accidentally causing a fire.
If the person you care for drinks alcohol, check if this is recommended alongside any medication they make take. If in doubt, ask your GP.
Dealing with incontinence in someone with dementia
Incontinence can be difficult to deal with and can be very upsetting for the person you care for. It's common for people with dementia to experience incontinence. This can be due to urinary tract infections, constipation causing added pressure on the bladder, or medication.
A person with dementia may also simply forget to go to the toilet, or may forget where the toilet is. They may also have lost the ability to tell when they need the toilet.
How you can help
It's important to be understanding, retain a sense of humour and remember that it's not their fault. You may also want to try the following:
- Put a sign on the toilet door, such as a photo of the toilet.
- Keep the toilet door open and make sure that the person you care for can access it easily.
- Make sure they can remove their clothes – some people with dementia can struggle with buttons and zips.
- Look out for signs that they may need to go to the toilet, such as fidgeting and standing up and down.
- Get adaptations to the toilet if necessary – you may be able to get these through a care and support needs assessment.
If you're still having problems with incontinence, ask your GP to refer you to a continence advisor, who can advise on things like waterproof bedding or incontinence pads.
Helping someone with dementia with their personal hygiene
People with dementia can become anxious about certain aspects of personal hygiene and may need help with washing. For example, they may be scared of falling when getting out of the bath, or they may become disorientated in the shower.
The person you care for may not want to be left alone or they may resist washing, because they find the lack of privacy undignified and embarrassing. Try to do what's best for them.
Read more about personal hygiene for people who are cared for.
Helping someone with dementia sleep well
People with dementia often experience disturbed sleep. They may wake up during the night or be restless. These problems may get worse as the illness progresses. People with dementia may also have painful illnesses such as arthritis that cause, or contribute to, sleep problems.
Some medication can cause sleepiness during the day and interfere with sleep at night. Sleeping pills can be used with care in people with dementia.
However, "sleep hygiene" measures are best for people with dementia – for example, no naps during the day, regular bedtimes, and avoiding alcohol or caffeine at night.
Read more about sleeping well.
Taking care of your own wellbeing
If you or a family member has dementia, you may find it difficult to stay positive. Remember that you are not alone, and that help and support is available. Talk to someone about your worries. This could be a family member or friend, a member of your local dementia support group, or your GP can refer you to a counsellor in your area.
It is important for a carer's physical health and psychological wellbeing that they are able to take a break (respite) from care. Carers may also need respite care if they have to go into hospital or meet other important commitments.
Friends, relatives and neighbours can provide respite care at home. You can also arrange home respite care through home care agencies or, in some areas, your local authority. Care away from home can confuse some people with dementia, both while they are away and when they come back. If you decide on respite care away from the person's home, it is a good idea to visit beforehand to check that it meets the needs of the person with dementia.
Caring for someone with dementia can be frustrating and stressful at times, but there are many organisations that can help. For more details, call the Carers Direct helpline on 0300 123 1053. Lines are open 9am-8pm Monday to Friday and 11am-4pm on weekends.
Reading Well Books on Prescription for dementia offers support for people diagnosed with dementia and their relatives and carers. GPs and other health professionals can recommend titles from a list of 25 books on dementia. The books are available for anyone to borrow for free from their local library.
Find out about the Reading Well Books on Prescription for dementia titles.
Dementia is not a disease itself but rather a collection of symptoms that result from damage to the brain caused by different diseases, such as Alzheimer's. These symptoms vary according to the part of the brain that is damaged.
On this page you can read about:
Common early symptoms of dementia
Different types of dementia can affect people differently, and everyone will experience symptoms in their own way.
However, there are some common early symptoms that may appear some time before a diagnosis of dementia. These include:
- memory loss
- difficulty concentrating
- finding it hard to carry out familiar daily tasks, such as getting confused over the correct change when shopping
- struggling to follow a conversation or find the right word
- being confused about time and place
- mood changes
These symptoms are often mild and may get worse only very gradually. It's often termed "mild cognitive impairment" (MCI) as the symptoms are not severe enough to be diagnosed as dementia.
You might not notice these symptoms if you have them, and family and friends may not notice or take them seriously for some time. In some people, these symptoms will remain the same and not worsen. But some people with MCI will go on to develop dementia.
Dementia is not a natural part of ageing. This is why it's important to talk to your GP sooner rather than later if you're at all worried about memory problems or other symptoms.
Symptoms specific to Alzheimer's disease
The most common cause of dementia is Alzheimer's disease. Common symptoms of Alzheimer's disease include:
- memory problems – regularly forgetting recent events, names and faces
- asking questions repetitively
- increasing difficulties with tasks and activities that require organisation and planning
- becoming confused in unfamiliar environments
- difficulty finding the right words
- difficulty with numbers and/or handling money in shops
- becoming more withdrawn or anxious
Read more about Alzheimer's disease.
Symptoms specific to vascular dementia
Vascular dementia is the second most common cause of dementia, after Alzheimer's. Some people have both vascular dementia and Alzheimer's disease, often called "mixed dementia".
Symptoms of vascular dementia are similar to Alzheimer's disease, although memory loss may not be as apparent in the early stages.
Symptoms can sometimes develop suddenly and quickly get worse, but they can also develop gradually over many months or years.
Specific symptoms can include:
- stroke-like symptoms: including muscle weakness or temporary paralysis on one side of the body (these symptoms require urgent medical attention)
- movement problems – difficulty walking or a change in the way a person walks
- thinking problems – having difficulty with attention, planning and reasoning
- mood changes – depression and a tendency to become more emotional
Read more about vascular dementia.
Symptoms specific to dementia with Lewy bodies
Dementia with Lewy bodies has many of the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, and people with the condition typically also experience:
- periods of being alert or drowsy, or fluctuating levels of confusion
- visual hallucinations
- becoming slower in their physical movements
- repeated falls and fainting
- sleep disturbances
Read more about dementia with Lewy bodies.
Symptoms specific to frontotemporal dementia
Although Alzheimer's disease is still the most common type of dementia in people under 65, a higher percentage of people in this age group may develop frontotemporal dementia than older people. Most cases are diagnosed in people aged 45-65.
Early symptoms of frontotemporal dementia may include:
- personality changes – reduced sensitivity to others' feelings, making people seem cold and unfeeling
- lack of social awareness – making inappropriate jokes or showing a lack of tact, though some people may become very withdrawn and apathetic
- language problems – difficulty finding the right words or understanding them
- becoming obsessive – such as developing fads for unusual foods, overeating and drinking
Read more about frontotemporal dementia.
Symptoms in the later stages of dementia
As dementia progresses, memory loss and difficulties with communication often become severe. In the later stages, the person is likely to neglect their own health, and require constant care and attention.
The most common symptoms of advanced dementia include:
- Memory problems – people may not recognise close family and friends, or remember where they live or where they are.
- Communication problems – some people may eventually lose the ability to speak altogether. Using non-verbal means of communication, such as facial expressions, touch and gestures, can help.
- Mobility problems – many people become less able to move about unaided. Some may eventually become unable to walk and require a wheelchair or be confined to bed.
- Behavioural problems – a significant number of people will develop what are known as "behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia". These may include increased agitation, depressive symptoms, anxiety, wandering, aggression or sometimes hallucinations.
- Bladder incontinence is common in the later stages of dementia, and some people will also experience bowel incontinence.
- Appetite and weight loss problems are both common in advanced dementia. Many people have trouble eating or swallowing, and this can lead to choking, chest infections and other problems. Find out more about eating and nutrition.
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Welcome to the NHS Choices Dementia Information Service, which guides you through the often difficult time after a dementia diagnosis. The emails can support you if you have just found out, or accepted, that you or a loved one has dementia.
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