Dementia signs, symptoms and diagnosis

2 March 2018

Poor brain function can be down to many things, including tiredness, depression, other illness, alcohol and even medications. But it can be an early warning sign of dementia, so it’s important not to ignore or dismiss it. Knowing the cause of the problem means you can get the right help and treatment.

Unfortunately, there is no one test for dementia, partly because it isn’t a single disease. Dementia is a diagnostic term used by doctors to describe a group of conditions where there is a recognisable deterioration in mental function. 

The most common form is Alzheimer’s, which occurs with age (usually over 65 years) and is due to a gradual but progressive loss of brain cells. Other types include vascular dementia, which is caused by blockage of blood supply to important parts of the brain, like after a stroke. Less commonly Lewy body dementia, Picks disease and other rarer brain diseases can cause dementia. 

Signs and symptoms of dementia

All forms of dementia cause some signs and symptoms that you can look out for. 

These include:

  • Declining memory
    Losing things, forgetting the names of objects and people, even close relatives or friends, or struggling to know what day, week, month or year it is.

  • Difficulty with problem solving
    Tasks which would normally be straight forward to that person become hard or impossible.

  • Reduced understanding
    Finding it hard to follow a conversation or having difficulty with reading or judging distances or spatial awareness.

  • Problems with communication
    Inability to find the right words.

  • Big changes in personality and behaviour
    It is often a close relative or friend who notices this.

Getting a diagnosis

If you're concerned, it's worth going to see your GP or a specialist such as a neurologist, geriatrician or psychiatrist. They will find it useful to chat with both the patient and their relatives to get a clear picture of what’s been going on. They can also carry out some tests, including something called the ‘Mini Mental State Examination’ (MMSE).

The MMSE assesses a person’s memory and reasoning powers by asking a series of questions such as "Memorise this short list of objects – ball, cup, pen - and then repeat the list back". A poor test score suggests that there may be a problem, although it cannot diagnose dementia on its own. Brain scans, blood tests and a more detailed assessment of the individual’s personal and medical history will help rule out other possibilities.

A diagnosis of dementia can come as a shock, even if you have been expecting it but an accurate diagnosis does mean you can get the expert care and support you need. It’s natural to feel worried about the future but, remember, you are not alone. 

Dementia affects not only the life of the person who has it but also the lives of their loved ones. Advice and support is available for all affected –the NHS, social services and voluntary organisations can all help (see list of useful links). 

Help yourself

  • There’s a lot you can do in the early stages to make life easier and more enjoyable. You may have to adapt some things but there is no reason why someone with dementia cannot lead an active life. Indeed, there is some evidence to suggest that keeping as mentally and physically active as possible may help ward off dementia.
  • Keep busy and continue with the activities and hobbies you’ve always enjoyed as these can be a great comfort and stress buster.

  • Take moderate exercise, such as walking or swimming, to lower the likelihood of developing other diseases, including vascular dementia.

  • Stay as independent as possible, tackling daily tasks as you have always done. If some things become more difficult, think of ways to make them easier or ask for help. Your GP will be able to advise you about the services and treatments that are available to you.

  • Medication can help slow down the progression of dementia in some cases - and there are also a number of different psychological treatments that can be used to help you cope with the symptoms.

  • Keep a diary and write down the things you want to remember.

  • Put labels around the house, such as on cupboards and drawers. 

Useful links

Age UK -

Alzheimer’s Society –

Carers UK -

Citizens Advice Bureau -

Dementia Action Alliance -

NHS Choices - 

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