GPs may struggle to distinguish between people who have dementia and those with other conditions, says a new study.
It’s easy for us mere mortals to assume a lapse in memory is an early sign of dementia, but more disturbing is a new report that finds that GPs may also get it wrong.
Researchers from the University of Leicester and colleagues from Germany looked at data of more than 15,000 individuals who consulted doctors because of suspected cognitive disorders. Of those, 7109 had been assessed specifically for dementia. As they analysed the data, they found that GPs successfully identified eight out of 10 people with moderate to severe dementia, but were less accurate when it came to spotting early dementia – only 45% were correctly recognised as suffering with symptoms.
But the problem isn’t just that GPs may miss some of those who have early signs of dementia, they are also misdiagnosing some people who don’t have the illness. “This study highlights for the first time that GPs trying to identify dementia actually make more false positive errors, with misidentifications outnumbering missed cases at least two to one,” says psychiatrist Dr Alex Mitchell, of the University of Leicester. The incorrect diagnoses were more likely to occur where the person lived alone where no other informants were available. Those with depression or hearing problems were more likely to be identified as having dementia when they didn’t.
The solution, say the researchers, is to provide GPs with a simple cognitive screening test which would help them achieve about 90% accuracy.
Everyone occasionally forgets things, and some people are naturally more forgetful than others. Furthermore, if you’re stressed, tired, ill or trying to remember too many things at once, you’ll experience more forgetfulness.
Memory loss that indicates early dementia is more than simply walking into the kitchen and not being able to remember what you came for – that happens to everyone at one time or another – this is more a case of an inability to remember things affecting a person’s day-to-day life.
Disabling memory loss, where an individual finds him/herself unable to function well socially or finds themselves unsure of whether their front door is their own, is more likely to be an indicator of dementia.
Even then, however, memory lapses can exacerbated by many other factors such as reduction in blood flow to the brain caused by high blood pressure, lack of sleep and sleep apnoea, underactive thyroid, depression as well as medications that include memory problems as a side effect.
If you are concerned about yourself or someone you know, you can ask your GP to give you a clinical assessment, which may include the General Practitioner Assessment of Cognition; the Mini Mental State Examination; or the 6 Item Cognitive Impairment Test.