Diagnosing dementia is problematic because it is not a disease in itself. Dementia is actually a series of symptoms caused by conditions such as Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, Lewy body dementia and stroke. Memory lapses are often considered to be a sign of dementia, but, in fact, problems with thought processes and communication must also be present for this diagnosis to be made.

There are two steps in ensuring an early diagnosis of dementia. Firstly, family members should be aware of subtle signs which may be associated with this condition.  Secondly, a series of medical tests are needed to identify whether or not the condition is likely to be present.

Observe Your Loved One

Dementia cannot be diagnosed simply by checking a person physically or taking a blood test. A general practitioner will initially need to develop an understanding about how your loved one’s behaviour and personality differs from the past. It can be helpful if you keep a journal which chronicles changes you have noticed.

It is important that you document what you observe in as much detail as possible because factors such as pain, frustration with disabilities or side-effects from medication can also cause these symptoms. Look for these changes:

Reduced abilities: Your loved one has trouble with tasks he or she was previously good at. Perhaps he or she has always been good at maths, but now has difficulty counting change.

Personality changes: Your loved one displays anti-social behaviours that are out of character.

Lack of Judgement: Your loved one makes rash decisions such as suddenly selling important assets.

Inability to learn: Learning to use something new such as a phone, television remote or kitchen appliance seems to be unusually problematic.

Poor finances: Check that your loved one has been paying bills and keeping up to date with financial matters. Make note of unusual lapses.

Constant struggles with memory or thinking: As people age they have occasional “senior moments”. However, regularly struggling to find the right word, missing appointments, forgetting common information such as the year and repeating questions are red flags that should be documented.

What a General Practitioner Will Do

Initially, a general practitioner will be interested in your journal and the incidents you have recorded. After all, you are in the best position compare your loved one’s abilities now with those of the past. The G.P. may then conduct an in-office cognitive test such as the GPCOG to make an initial assessment.

The G.P. will thoroughly review previous medical records and may delay further testing for a number of reasons. If your loved one has recently been very ill or depressed, these could be associated symptoms.

Diagnosing dementia requires a number of tests. The G.P. will also seek to identify other possible causes. Tests ordered by the G.P. may include:

  • a neurological exam to assess nerve function and reflexes
  • laboratory tests for vitamin deficiencies, thyroid function and other possible underlying conditions
  • brain imaging which may be done in a number of ways including x-rays and M.R.I.

The collated information from the data you have provided, medical history and results of these tests will then be used to make a diagnosis.

The Importance of Early Identification

Early detection is important because some types of dementia are treatable. An early diagnosis gives you and your loved one the chance to plan for the future and access appropriate support such as in-home care. If your loved one shows the symptoms mentioned, do not hesitate to make an appointment with his or her G.P.


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