Talking to your GP about dementia
If you are worried that your or someone else's symptoms may be dementia, the first thing to do is to contact your GP surgery. This page has information to help you prepare and get the most out of your conversation.
At your appointment you may be seen by a GP, who is a doctor, or a nurse who works at the surgery. Both are qualified in checking for signs of dementia and other conditions. They will try to see if something else is causing your symptoms, or refer you for further tests with a specialist.
If you have an increased risk of dementia, your GP may ask about your memory even if you are visiting for another reason.
It can be hard talking about your problems with a health professional, especially if you don’t know them very well. But doing this will mean you get the right support.
Our symptoms checklist can help you start the conversation, and remember everything you want to say during the appointment.
Explaining your symptoms to a GP
If you're worried about yourself or someone close to you, complete our symptoms checklist and show it to your GP.
What happens at the GP appointment?
You are likely to see the health professional in their surgery. In some cases, they may make a home visit to examine you when you are in a familiar place.
The GP, or another health professional from the GP surgery, will carry out the initial assessment in a number of ways, including:
- Taking a personal and medical ‘history’ – the GP will talk to you and someone who knows you well. They may contact someone close to you by phone if they cannot attend in person. They should ask about:
- how and when your symptoms started and how they are affecting your life
- your medical history and that of your close family
- any medicines you are taking.
- Physical examinations – the GP may carry out a physical examination, particularly if there is a chance you have had a stroke or have Parkinson’s disease. This may look at how you move, your co-ordination, and any obvious problems with your hearing and sight.
- Tests – the GP should request a sample of your blood (and sometimes urine) to send off for testing. This is to check for other conditions that could be causing your symptoms, such as thyroid problems or vitamin deficiencies. If necessary, you may also have an electrocardiogram (ECG) to check how your heart is working. In an ECG, small sticky patches called electrodes are put on your skin. These are connected by wires to a machine that records your heartbeat.
- Checking your mental abilities – the GP will ask you a series of questions to understand more about your memory, how you think things through and your awareness about time and place. This is called a cognitive assessment. If your appointment is in person, they may ask you to write answers to some questions on a piece of paper.
At the end of their assessment, the GP will explain their findings and discuss what actions need to be taken. If they think you might have dementia, they will probably need more information before they can confirm this.
Preparing for the GP appointment
If you have time to think about the appointment in advance, the following tips can help you prepare.
Before the appointment
- Ask someone close to you if they can come to the appointment with you. They can support you, and help you remember what was said at the appointment. It also helps the GP to talk to someone close to you, as they may have noticed changes that you haven’t.
- Write down what you want to say before you go, and take your notes with you. This will help you remember what you wanted to talk about. Keeping a diary of the problems you’ve been having will help your GP understand how your symptoms are affecting you. You can also print and fill out our symptoms checklist to help you explain the symptoms you are having and how they are affecting you to the GP.
- Make a list of all the medicines you take. Your GP will ask about this. Include over-the-counter medications and other remedies that haven’t been prescribed by your doctor, such as herbal medicines and vitamins.
- Ask for a longer appointment if you have lots to talk about or feel you may take a long time to get your words out. You will need to do this when you're booking the appointment.
- Ask to see a GP you know well. If there is a GP in your practice who you feel comfortable talking to, ask to speak to them.
- Ask for a translator, if needed. It’s important that you and your GP can understand what each other are saying well.
- Consider asking for an in-person appointment. Many GP appointments now happen virtually – over the phone or video call. It may be easier for the GP to understand how your problems are affecting you if you see them in person.
- Ask for an appointment at a quieter time of day. This can help if you find the noise of the waiting room hard to cope with.
- Give yourself enough time to get to your appointment, so that you don't feel rushed or stressed.
- Think about what you want your GP to do. This may be further tests, a referral to a local memory service, or arranging more support at home.
During the appointment
- Be honest. You may find it hard to open up about mistakes you have been making with your memory, or behaviour changes you are unhappy with. But your GP is used to talking about these problems with people and will respect and support you as a patient. Their main concern is to find out the cause of your problems.
- Let your GP know what’s normal for you, and how that has changed. Tell them what you used to find easy, but you now struggle with. You should mention when you first noticed changes, and if they’re getting worse.
- Use words and descriptions that feel right to you. Don’t be afraid to use phrases that show how bad things are for you, such as 'I'm not coping with...' or 'I'm concerned about...'
- Show your GP any information that helps you explain your concerns. This could be a diary of symptoms, or your completed symptoms checklist.
- Make a note of anything important the GP says. You might want to write down any medical terms that are used, or what the next steps will be.
- Ask if you’re unsure. If there's anything you do not understand, ask the GP to explain in simpler terms.
Will I be referred to a dementia specialist?
If your symptoms cannot be explained by another condition, or you have not improved with treatment, your GP may refer you to a specialist service for further tests. This might be a memory clinic (perhaps in a memory assessment service) or other specialist service within a community mental health team.
How to get a dementia diagnosis
The dementia diagnosis process can vary for everyone. Read more about the typical steps involved in getting a diagnosis, including what might happen if you are referred to a specialist.
The GP may not refer you to a dementia specialist if they think something else may be causing your symptoms, such as another health condition. If so, they should talk to you about how they will diagnose and treat the other condition.
If your GP tells you that your symptoms are a normal sign of ageing, you may wish to:
- ask them how your symptoms are different to what’s expected in someone with dementia
- fill out the symptoms checklist and show it to your GP. This can help you explain your symptoms and how they are affecting you
- show them information about normal ageing and dementia
- ask them what to do if your symptoms get worse, or if you have new symptoms
- ask to be referred to the specialist, so you can be sure of the diagnosis.
Asking your GP for a second opinion
If the GP doesn’t refer you to a specialist, but you feel this is necessary, you can ask them to arrange a second opinion. This can be from a specialist or another GP. However, the GP does not have to do this if they do not think it is needed.
If you have not been referred for a second opinion and feel this has made your health worse, you may wish to complain.
Disagreeing with your doctor isn’t easy, but you know yourself best. Feel confident in explaining your situation. The doctor has a duty to provide the most appropriate support for you.
How to register with a GP
Registering with a GP is free in the UK. In England and Wales, you do not need proof of address or immigration status, ID or an NHS number to register.
See the NHS website for more information on GP registration and services.
Dementia Support Line
Dementia Support Forum
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