Primary care and dementia: 1. diagnosis, screening and disclosure

Int J Geriatr Psychiatry. 2009 Sep;24(9):895-901. doi: 10.1002/gps.2204.


Objectives: To write a narrative review of the roles of primary care practitioners in caring for people with dementia in the community.

Methods: The systematic review carried out for the NICE/SCIE Guidelines was updated from January 2006, Cochrane Reviews were identified, and other publications found by consultation with experts.

Results: The insidious and very variable development of dementia syndromes makes recognition of the syndrome problematic in primary care. Dementia is probably under-diagnosed and under treated with an estimated 50% of primary care patients over 65 not diagnosed by their primary care physicians. This problem of under-diagnosis is probably not due to lack of diagnostic skills, but rather to the interaction of case-complexity, pressure on time and the negative effects of reimbursement systems. Primary care physicians often over-estimate the prevalence of dementia syndromes, but in some countries may also overestimate the prevalence of vascular dementia compared with Alzheimer's disease. Diagnosis is a step-wise process which can be aided by use of a cognitive function test, of which there are a number suitable for primary care use. Evidence based practice protocols can enhance detection rates in primary care, and there is growing evidence that communication skills in talking to people with dementia about dementia can be improved. Nevertheless there are multiple obstacles to bringing recognition forward in time, both in public awareness and professional understanding of the early changes in dementia.

Conclusions: There is insufficient evidence of benefit to justify population screening in primary care but earlier recognition of people with dementia syndrome is possible within primary care. The diagnosis of dementia is a shared responsibility between generalist and specialist disciplines. Primary care physicians should explore patients' ideas and concerns around their symptoms prior to referral and tentatively discuss possible diagnoses. Once the diagnosis has been confirmed, the primary care physician should provide both practical and emotional support to allow the patient and their family to come to terms with living with dementia, and refer them for additional psychosocial support if required.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Dementia / diagnosis*
  • Dementia / psychology
  • Dementia / therapy
  • Family / psychology
  • Family Practice
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Physician-Patient Relations
  • Practice Guidelines as Topic
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians'
  • Quality of Health Care
  • United Kingdom