Diagnosing dementia: What you need to know

Many people are scared about receiving a dementia diagnosis, but if you know what’s involved, it could can make the whole process much easier. Find out how dementia is diagnosed and why a diagnosis can help.

In a nutshell

Diagnosing dementia takes time and can involve several tests and brain scans. But it's important not to worry too much about it whilst the tests are under way. Although it may be upsetting, an early, accurate diagnosis is still by far the best way for you to get the treatment and support you deserve, so that you can continue living well for years to come.

Three facts worth knowing

1. Dementia is our biggest fear in later life. According to a UK poll by Saga, a diagnosis is scarier, for people over 55, than developing cancer.
2. Only 50 per cent of those living with dementia in the UK have been formerly diagnosed, though in 2014 the NHS invested £5million into urgently improving this.
3. The most commonly diagnosed form of dementia is Alzheimer's disease.

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What actually happens

Most people start by visiting their GP (often with a friend or relative) but if your symptoms are mild you could be referred to a specialist who knows more about dementia, such as a neurologist, an old age psychiatrist or a geriatrician.

A memory assessment called a Mini Mental State Examination (MMSE) usually forms part of the diagnosis but try not to get stressed about this. It's nothing like any test or 'exam' you might have taken before – there's no 'pass or fail'! It's simply designed to give the doctor a more clear idea of the kind of problems you might be having.

Other physical tests such as blood or urine tests might also be carried out, usually to rule out other conditions such as thyroid deficiencies, urine infections, which can all cause symptoms similar to dementia.

A brain scan (usually a CT scan or an MRI scan) may be suggested as well, to see exactly what's happening inside your brain and to rule out other conditions such as tumours or bleeds.

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Here's the science

A CT scan shows structural changes to brain tissue, whilst an MRI scan can show changes in the brain's activity.

Good to know

-  A diagnosis of dementia may come as a severe shock, and feelings of anger, loss, sadness and grief are totally understandable. However research suggests that a diagnosis, when done   sensitively, can also come as a relief. Many people say they felt 'reassured' that they were not 'losing their mind' but instead had a recognised, fairly common condition. A diagnosis also allows you to take control of your own future rather than simply worrying about it.

-  If you are diagnosed with something called 'mild cognitive impairment' it means that you may be in the very early stages of dementia but don't have enough symptoms to prove a formal diagnosis yet. Or it could mean that your current difficulties are caused by another condition, such as depression, and there's a very good chance they could improve as you recover.

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