Diagnosis and Treatment

Getting a diagnosis

If you suspect that you or someone you care about is showing symptoms of dementia or memory loss, you should contact your family doctor as soon as possible.

A diagnosis will usually be made depending on how you are affected, your family history and psychological changes. It is often useful to bring someone with you when you see your family doctor who can help answer questions.

The earlier a diagnosis is made, the more effective treatment can be. For example, prompt use of medication may help delay symptoms, as well as improving those which already exist.

A diagnosis is important to rule out other possible causes of confusion, such as poor sight or hearing; emotional changes and upsets, such as bereavement; or the side-effects of certain drugs or combinations of drugs.

Getting a diagnosis will also ensure timely access to advice and information and allow you and your carers to plan and make arrangements for the future.

Whether a diagnosis of dementia comes as a shock or confirms your suspicions, you could experience a range of emotions – you may feel numb, frightened, angry, worried, sad, guilty or frustrated.

However, you may also feel relieved to find there is a medical reason for your memory problems.

Although there is currently no cure for dementia, with treatment and support many people who have the condition lead active, fulfilling lives.

What tests are involved?

Tests to help diagnose dementia can include:

  • Memory tests.
  • Questions relating to language and mathematical skills
  • A physical examination and laboratory investigation (e.g. blood and urine tests).
  • A computerised tomography (CT) scan or a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan.
  • A referral to a memory assessment service for a specialist diagnosis.

Treatment for dementia

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 dementia with Lewy Bodies.

Although there is no cure, medication can stabilise the condition for a while.

Medication should be reviewed regularly and continued so long as the drug benefits outweigh any side-effects.

At present, there are no treatments that can reverse the progress of dementia once it has developed.

However, there are drugs that may alleviate some of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, for a limited period of time.

These drugs (Aricept, Exilon and Reminyl) are known as cholinesterase inhibitors and they prevent enzymes related to Alzheimer’s Disease breaking down in the brain.

Medication can provide some people with improvements in confidence, daily activities, memory and thinking. In some cases, it can also temporarily slow down the progression of symptoms.

However, they don’t work for everyone and the medication can cause a number of side effects (the most common side effects are loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea).

Treatment for vascular dementia

People with vascular dementia will be treated for their vascular disease to try to prevent it from worsening. This may involve taking drugs to lower blood pressure and making lifestyle changes.

People will especially benefit from a healthier lifestyle by stopping smoking, taking regular exercise, eating healthily, and drinking alcohol only in moderation.

Complementary and alternative medicine

For those who wish to consider the help that complementary and alternative therapies may offer, an Alzheimer’s Society factsheet outlines several therapies and describes how to access them.

Therapies for which there is some evidence of effectiveness include aromatherapy, music therapy, acupuncture, light therapy, massage, and herbal therapy.

Looking after yourself

Those who are prescribed medication should always take it regularly.

It is also important to consider other things that may improve the quality of life for people with dementia.

This may include:

  • Eating a well-balanced, healthy diet.
  • Reducing smoking or alcohol intake.
  • Staying mentally and physically active as far as possible.
  • Try to continue any interests, such as walking, gardening, music and sport.
  • Staying physically active as far as possible.
  • Talking about concerns and symptoms with family or specialist services.
  • Keeping in touch with and raising any concerns with your family doctor.

Further information

The Alzheimer’s Society national dementia helpline has trained advisers ready to discuss your concerns from 9am to 5pm from Monday to Friday and 10am to 4pm at the weekend.

T: 0800 222 11 22

There are Alzheimer’s Society factsheets on a wide range of topics related to information about dementia.