Dementia signs, symptoms and diagnosis

1 April 2012

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.

Reduced brain function can be down to many things, including tiredness, depression, other illness, alcohol and even medications. But it can be also 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.

The most common form of dementia is Alzheimers disease, which occurs with age (usually over 65 years) and is due to a gradual but progressive loss of brain cells, which means it gets worse over time. The exact cause of Alzheimers is still unknown but it affects the nerves, brain cells and neurotransmitters in the brain.

Other types include vascular dementia, which is caused by blockage of blood supply to important parts of the brain, for example, after a stroke.

Less commonly Dementia with Lewys bodies (DLB), Picks disease and other rarer brain diseases can cause dementia.

Signs and symptoms

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

These may include:

  • Memory loss

    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, behaviour and mood

    It is often a close relative or friend who notices this.

    Co-ordination or problems with movement.

As the disease progresses, people may have difficulty remembering things they’ve recently done or should be doing. Problems with language and speech may start to develop, as well as symptoms such as:

  • Obsessive or repetitive behaviour
  • Mood swings
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Seeing or hearing things that aren’t there (hallucinations)
  • Believing things that are untrue (delusions)
  • speech problems and poor coordination
  • Incontinence

Getting a diagnosis

A good first step is to see your GP who can refer you to a specialist such as a neurologist, geriatrician or psychiatrist if necessary. 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).

A diagnosis of dementia can come as a shock, even if you’ve 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’re 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).

Self-help for dementia

There’s a lot you can do in the early stages of dementia to make life easier and more enjoyable. You may have to adapt some things but there is no reason why someone with dementia can't 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’ve 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 to remind you where things are kept.

Reduce your risk

As the exact cause of dementia isn't clear, there's no known way to prevent it. However, the NHS recommends the following lifestyle changes which can benefit both your physical and mental health.

  • Stop smoking and reduce the amount of alcohol you consume
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet and maintain a healthy weight
  • Keep physically fit and mentally active
  • Prioritise your sleep

Sources and further reading

Useful links