About dementia

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Getting a diagnosis

Finding out if it’s dementia

Several conditions can lead to dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease and vascular disease (including stroke).

Signs of dementia are unique to each person, but there will usually be:

  • Decline in memory, reasoning and communication skills
  • Gradual loss of the skills needed to carry out daily activities
  • Confusion

Other conditions have symptoms similar to dementia and may be treatable, including depression, chest and urinary infections, severe constipation, vitamin and thyroid deficiencies and brain tumours, drug interactions or alcohol abuse.  Other possible causes of confusion are poor sight or hearing; and emotional changes and upsets, such as moving or bereavement.

Why find out?

Finding out the cause of the symptoms can help you to:

  • Understand the source of the symptoms
  • Get advice, information and support (emotional, practical and financial) from community agencies, medical professionals and the Alzheimer Society
  • Allow the person with dementia to plan and make arrangements for the future

As drugs for treating different conditions become available, it is becoming increasingly important to identify which type of dementia the person has. For example, drugs are already available to treat some people with Alzheimer's disease and some people with Lewy body dementia, but these drugs are ineffective in the treatment of Pick's disease (another form of dementia), and may actually worsen symptoms.

Making the diagnosis

There is no single test that can determine if a person has Alzheimer's disease. The diagnosis is made through a series of tests that help eliminate other possible causes. Until there is a conclusive test, doctors may continue to use the words "probable Alzheimer's disease." However, you should be aware that doctors making this diagnosis are accurate 80 to 90 per cent of the time.

Making the diagnosis can take time. If scans and other investigations are required, it could be 4-12 weeks, depending on waiting lists. If the person is in the early stages of dementia, a 6-12 month period of monitoring may be required before a diagnosis can be made.

The diagnosis can be made in a family doctor's office, or at a memory clinic or hospital. The doctor may feel that the person needs to see a number of health-care professionals to help make the diagnosis. These may include a psychologist, psychiatrist, neurologist, geriatrician, nurse, social worker and/or occupational therapist. These professionals look for problems with the person's memory, reasoning ability, language and judgment, and how these problems affect day-to-day function. Learn more.


Last Updated: 12/02/13