There are about 800,000 people in the UK with dementia and this is expected to double over the next 40 years. It's more likely to affect people over 65, but can affect younger people. Yet many are unaware of how to spot the early signs or what to do next. Dan Parton reports.

What is dementia?

Dementia is something of a catch-all term for symptoms of various diseases and conditions that affect the brain’s ability to function, such as Alzheimer’s disease, the effect of strokes and blood clots.

Common symptoms of dementia include gradual loss of memory, problems with understanding, confusion, problems with speech and the skills required to complete everyday tasks.

Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, affecting around 450,000 people in the UK, and often encompasses the above symptoms, although it varies from case to case. Dementia is a degenerative disease that affects the brain’s structure, leading to the death of brain cells.

Another common form of dementia is cerebro-vascular dementia, which is brought on by ‘wear and tear’ of the brain, including tiny strokes, poor circulation, arteries furring up, minor head injuries and general ageing.

Spotting the signs

While dementia is common in the UK, 66% of people in the UK are not aware of what the early signs of Alzheimer’s or dementia are. Indeed only 5% believe they are well informed, according to a survey by market research firm YouGov.


  • 62% of those polled believe that memory loss is a natural part of ageing
  • 20% do not consider it to be a serious medical problem
  • 10% say they would not bother their doctor over the condition

As a result, unsurprisingly, only a third of people with dementia receive a formal diagnosis, which is often only given in the latter stages of the condition.

But spotting the signs of dementia can be difficult. For instance, the early signs of dementia often resemble depression, and memory loss may not necessarily be due to dementia, it could just be ageing or a sign of stress.

Key signs to look out for are:

  • Memory loss, particularly short-term e.g. the individual might forget what happened today, but often long-term memory is comparatively clear
  • Communication difficulties. Increased word confusion or difficulty in expression
  • Mood changes. It can be a frightening and frustrating experience to recognise these symptoms but there are tools available as "mental agility" which may slow down the symptoms, or deal more effectively with them when they arise
  • Disorientation. Confusion as to the time of day and location is also common

Next steps

The first step if you have suspicions someone close to you has dementia is to contact your GP. They will give the person an assessment, including a physical examination, memory tests and should be able to tell much from general conversations. This can help to rule out other conditions such as depression.

The Mini Mental State Examination (MMSE) is the most commonly used test for memory problems. It can be used to help diagnose dementia and to help assess its progression and severity. The MMSE is a series of questions and tests, each of which scores points if answered correctly. A score of 27 out of 30 is considered normal.

There is some evidence that memory loss can be reduced or stalled with some simple memorization techniques, physical exercise, and a reduction of stress. The Open Education Database's Memory Toolbox offer an article of 75 tips and resources here.

If the person is diagnosed with dementia, then they, and their family, friends or carers can prepare and plan for the future, such as making decisions about legal affairs, money and benefits. Planning for the future can make things easier to manage later on.

Typically, social services won’t provide support until the advanced stages. However, they do have a duty to assess anyone who may be in need of services, such as adaptations to their home, meals on wheels, home care and respite.

However, additional help and support, beyond family and friends, is available from a range of services including:

  • Your GP
  • Charities
  • Admiral nurses (specialist dementia nurses)
  • Local voluntary groups

Useful links

The Alzheimer’s Society:

Alzheimer's Scotland: