Early diagnosis of dementia, before the condition starts to progress, will help to reduce anxiety about why you are experiencing symptoms and will allow faster access to, and a better chance of benefiting from, the available treatment. 

If you’re suffering from dementia, an early diagnosis also gives you time to:

  • Start planning for the future.
  • Talk to your employer about support you’ll need at work (if you’re still working).
  • Protect your financial position with a lasting power of attorney.
  • Explore what care you might need and what support is available for you and your family carers.
  • Investigate any entitlement you may have to benefits.
  • Talk to your loved ones about how your diagnosis will affect them.

An early diagnosis can thus help you take control of your condition, identify your care preferences, plan for the future, maximise your time with your family and live well with dementia.

 

According to the Social Care Institute for Excellence, there is also strong evidence that an early diagnosis can help someone with dementia to continue to live independently in their own home for longer, which helps to avoid early or unnecessary admission to a care home or hospital, thus enhancing the quality of life for both people with dementia and their family carers.

 

What are the early signs of dementia?

So how do you know if you might be experiencing the early signs of dementia? It depends on the type of dementia you have.

Dementia is the general term for the condition characterised by a progressive decline of brain function. The main types are:

  • Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Vascular dementia.
  • Lewy body dementia.
  • Frontotemporal dementia.

The early signs can vary depending on which type of dementia you have.

With Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most common type of dementia, the main early problems are with:

  • Short-term memory.
  • The ability to remember recent events.
  • The ability to learn new information.

Vascular dementia tends not to affect memory at the early stage. While it does cause cognition problems, these can initially relate to:

  • The ability to plan and to organise.
  • Concentration levels.
  • Decision-making or solving problems.
  • The ability to follow a series of steps (e.g. when cooking).
  • Clarity and speed of thinking.

Lewy body dementia is a brain disorder in which certain protein deposits, called Lewy bodies, build up in the brain. The symptoms of Lewy body dementia are similar to those of Parkinson’s disease, and depend on the whereabouts of the Lewy bodies in the brain. The early signs that you may thus experience are visual hallucinations and problems with:

  • Movement.
  • Staying focused.
  • Decision-making.
  • Sleep.

Frontotemporal dementia is a less common type of dementia and more difficult to diagnose. It’s easily mistaken for other conditions, such as obsessive compulsive disorder. There are two broad types of frontotemporal dementia – one that affects behaviour and personality, and one that causes difficulties with language – but their symptoms may also overlap. Typical early symptoms include:

  • Loss of inhibitions.
  • Repetitive or obsessive behaviours.
  • Becoming distracted easily.
  • Loss of motivation.
  • Apathy.
  • Difficulties with finding the right word when naming objects.

 

What should you do if you think you might have dementia?

While there’s currently no cure for dementia, there are various treatments available, which can help reduce symptoms. So, if you are experiencing any of the symptoms outlined above, the sooner you get diagnosed, the sooner your medical practitioner can get a treatment plan in place.

Dementia is usually treated with a combination of pharmacological interventions such as medication – mainly ‘inhibitors’ to help stop the breakdown in communication between brain cells – and psychosocial interventions.

These interventions can be really helpful, and may slow down the progression of the condition. A diagnosis plays an important part in identifying which type of dementia you may have, and therefore which treatments are appropriate.

 

How does diagnosis work?

We suggest that the first step, if you are worried you may be suffering from dementia, would be to contact your GP or to get in touch with us for a quick and easy dementia test. You can book a consultation with us here.

The diagnosis process usually consists of the following three stages, although it may vary from person to person, depending on your particular circumstances:

  • Assessments.
  • Tests.
  • Scans.

Assessments: Your GP will usually refer you for a cognitive assessment to a healthcare professional who specialises in diagnosing dementia. If you would like to opt for our memory clinic, your diagnosis will start with an initial online consultation with one of our dementia specialists, who will perform a mental state examination. You will also be asked questions about your medical and psychiatric history, which could reveal any other conditions that may be causing or contributing to the symptoms you are experiencing: it could be you have had a stroke or mini-stroke, or you are suffering from Parkinson’s disease. Your full medical history could also be provided to us by your GP.

Our experts or your GP may also organise a blood test to see if you have an infection, or vitamin or thyroid deficiency, or other condition which could be causing your symptoms.

It is advisable to ask someone who knows you well to join you for this first appointment – a friend or family member. They can support you and may be able to help you answer any questions you are unsure of.

Tests: Our experts will carry out verbal and written tests to assess your memory and thinking, and may also send you for a brain scan if considered necessary. Your GP could also help you organise a brain scan.

Scans: As dementia is the result of disease attacking the tissue and cells in the brain, a scan can identify any unusual structural changes in the brain, and so help your consultant determine if you are suffering from dementia and, if so, which type.

It may be that a scan shows no particular signs of brain deterioration, but that does not necessarily rule out cognitive impairment and dementia as, in the early stages, the visible changes in the brain may not look that different from the process of natural ageing.

The most common forms of scan are CT (computerised tomography) and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). The scan is not used to diagnose dementia, but is a tool that is part of the assessment of your condition.

A CT head scan can help identify conditions with similar symptoms to dementia, and either rule them out or confirm that they are the cause of your symptoms, and not necessarily dementia. The scan may show that there is bleeding in the brain, suggesting you may have had a hemorrhagic stroke, or identify a tumour or build-up of fluid within the brain.

Both MRI and CT scans will reveal any changes in the size of the brain. A shrinking of the hippocampus and the tissue around it would suggest early stage Alzheimer’s disease. And if an MRI reveals blood vessel damage or disease, this could be a warning sign of vascular dementia.

A CT and/or MRI scan may also reveal reduced tissue in the frontal and/or temporal lobes of the brain, suggesting frontotemporal dementia. Even if no changes are picked up, if the consultant suspects you may have frontotemporal dementia, you may be sent for a more specialised brain scan, such as a PET (positron emission tomography) which assesses the brain activity in the targeted lobes.

Following the assessment and tests, your Consultant in Old Age Psychiatry will come up with a diagnosis and identify the type of dementia you are suffering from.

If you’re concerned you may have dementia, please get in touch with us to speak to one of our consultants. And you can take our simple, non-intrusive dementia test.

Written By Al Brunker
November 2021