Dementia – Where do you start?

September has been Dementia Awareness Month and the theme this year is ‘You are not alone’. This refers to the fact that 7 in 10 Australians are affected by dementia in some way – either because they have dementia themselves or someone close to them does.

413 000 Australians are currently living with dementia and 1.2 million people are caring for someone with dementia. Every day, 244 Australians are diagnosed with dementia – that means 10 people every hour. One more person will receive the diagnosis by the time you have finished reading this.

But there’s also good news. Most dementias are NOT hereditary and there are many, many things we can do to keep our brains healthy and reduce our risk of getting dementia. Top of the list of protective activities are:

  • 30 minutes of physical exercise a day (walking, dancing, swimming, cycling or whatever sport takes your fancy)
  • staying socially active
  • continuing to set meaningful goals and learning new skills
  • getting 7-9 hours of good quality sleep per night
  • keeping sugar consumption to less than 6 teaspoons per day (Read my Sugar Series here.)
  • being able to let things go and not feeling chronically stressed

‘You are not alone’ also refers to the excellent support that is available through Alzheimer’s Australia. Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia in Australia and the western world but the organisation provides information, education and support services for all types of dementia (there are over 100 different brain conditions that qualify as dementia). Visit or ring the Dementia Helpline on 1800 100 500.

The most common question I am asked about dementia is: ‘Where do I start? I am worried that my parent/spouse/relative might be developing the disease but how do I get an accurate diagnosis?’

Here is an overview of the process of diagnosing dementia. I emphasise the word ‘process’ because it isn’t a disease that has a definitive test that reveals yes or no. There is a lot of research into developing such a test but as yet there is nothing available.

The person’s GP (family doctor) is your first port of call and the first step is to exclude conditions that mimic dementia but are not dementia. Examples include thyroid disease, infections (especially of the urinary tract), vitamin deficiencies, side effects of medications, stroke, severe stress or anxiety, depression, hydrocephalus (build up of excess fluid in the brain) or a brain tumour. It helps if the doctor has known the person for a long time because they may notice changes in brain function before they even start to do any formal tests.

It’s a really good idea to write up a list of symptoms and behaviours you’ve observed in your loved one that are causing you concern. Take the list with you to the doctor and ask what each of the symptoms might mean. If you’re worried about upsetting the person, you may like to have a word with the doctor on your own before you bring the person into the room. When you book the appointment explain to the receptionist that you’d like 5 minutes alone with the doctor first.

The doctor will then perform a physical examination and a series of mental tests before ordering blood tests and one or all of the following (usually not all at once but over a number of visits):

  • urine test
  • questionnaire to rule out a mood disorder
  • brain imaging eg CT scan or MRI
  • referral to a specialist geriatrician, neurologist or psychiatrist

When enough pieces of the puzzle have been assembled, a provisional diagnosis will be made and treatment options discussed.

This article is part of a series on dementia.
Discover the rest of the series below:

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