Diagnosing vascular dementia

A diagnosis of vascular dementia usually starts with a conversation with a GP. There is no single test for vascular dementia, and a diagnosis may be based on a combination of things.

Getting an early diagnosis of vascular dementia has many benefits. It means other conditions can be ruled out and it gives the person an explanation for their symptoms.

A diagnosis also gives a person access to treatment, advice and support, and allows them to prepare for the future and plan ahead.

Talking to the GP

It may be helpful for someone being assessed for dementia to bring someone else along to any appointments. This person can give support and listen to what is said. 

The GP will often make an initial assessment and then refer the person to a local memory service for a more detailed assessment. Here, specialist health professionals will have lots of combined expertise in dementia and can arrange more detailed tests and brain scans, if needed.

Sometimes a GP will make the diagnosis if it is very clear that the person has dementia. In this case, they will not need to be referred to a specialist.

A person with dementia should receive a clear explanation of their diagnosis, if they want to know it. It should be explained in a way that they can understand. There should also be a discussion about the next steps and what support is available

In the film below, Dr Louise Robinson gives her top tips to help you prepare for your first conversation with a GP.

Seeing a specialist

There is no single test for dementia. A diagnosis is based on a combination of things, including:

  • taking a ‘history’ – the health professional talks to the person, and ideally someone who knows them well, about their problems and how they are affecting the person’s daily life
  • physical examination and tests (for example, blood tests) to rule out other possible causes of the person’s symptoms
  • mental ability tests (for example, memory and thinking) – these are generally carried out by a nurse, occupational therapist or doctor, although sometimes more specialist tests may be done by a neuropsychologist. For someone with vascular dementia, these tests might show slower speed of thought and difficulties thinking things through, which are often more common than memory loss.

Having a brain scan

A person suspected of having vascular dementia will usually also have a brain scan. Brain scans cannot identify vascular dementia by themselves, but they can be used along with other information to help confirm the diagnosis.

A CT or MRI scan may show evidence of a recent stroke or of other changes in the brain. They may help to rule out a tumour or build-up of fluid inside the brain, which can have symptoms similar to those of vascular dementia. Some brain scans can also help tell the difference between vascular dementia and other types of dementia.

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