NHS urges people to spot dementia warning signs in loved ones this Christmas

England’s top mental health nurse is urging people to look out for signs of dementia among family and friends over Christmas, as NHS diagnosis rates are at a three year high.

Issues that may have been hidden can come to the surface or be easier to spot when families or friends across the country get together over the festive season, NHS mental health director Claire Murdoch said.

Common early symptoms of dementia that may appear some time before an official medical diagnosis include:

  • emotional change
  • forgetfulness
  • difficulty concentrating
  • struggling to follow a conversation or find the right word
  • being confused about time and place.

The call comes as the NHS is diagnosing tens of thousands more people with dementia since the start of the pandemic.

NHS figures shows staff diagnosed 463,797 people aged over 65 with dementia in November 2023 – up more than 41,000 than the same period last year.

Thanks to an NHS drive to increase diagnosis rates with 14 pilots across England seeing health professionals go into care homes to assess older adults who may have missed checks during the pandemic.

Heath chiefs are expecting the ambition of diagnosing 66.7% of people over 65 will be met in the next year, with three regions already hitting the target in London, North West, and North East and Yorkshire.

In 14 parts of the country care home residents are being proactively assessed for the condition by specialist nurses and other healthcare professionals

NHS Mental Health Director, Claire Murdoch said: “Dementia is an extremely deceptive disease that develops slowly and may go unnoticed in people, but with family and friends gathering at Christmas perhaps for the first time in months, there is an opportunity to spot the vital warning signs of this condition.

“There are lots of reasons why people might be forgetful or absent-minded at such a busy time of the year, but it could also be the sign that something can be wrong.

“Getting a diagnosis for dementia is the first step in supporting people with a wide range of NHS services able to help.

“Thanks to the efforts of NHS staff, tens of thousands more people are now getting a dementia diagnosis than this time last year which opens up doors to further support for patients and their families who experience this heart-breaking disease.

“If you have noticed that someone has symptoms, please encourage them to visit their GP for an assessment – the sooner someone is seen the quicker the NHS can help.”

The NHS recommends that anyone who is concerned about a friend or loved one should listen carefully and sympathetically to their concerns, encourage people to get help and get checked out by their GP.

A dementia diagnosis is the first step in assessing whether someone would be suitable for treatments, or whether they and their family need further support from a range of NHS services.

The NHS has also set up a dedicated programme to prepare for the rollout of new drugs that could slow the progression of early Alzheimer’s Disease, if they are approved by regulators, and this includes assessing additional testing requirements and capacity.

Data shows there are around 944,000 individuals currently living with dementia in the UK; and around one-in-three people will care for someone with the disease at some point in their lives.

James White, Head of National Influencing at Alzheimer’s Society said: “Dementia is the UK’s biggest killer, with over 750,000 people currently living with the condition in England.

“Christmas should be a joyful time surrounded by family and friends enjoying the festivities, but sadly, for thousands of people it will be the first time they notice changes in their loved ones showing signs of dementia.

“Dementia can often be mistaken for simply old age – but it’s not a natural part of ageing and it doesn’t just affect older people.

“If you spot symptoms in a loved one, such as confusion or memory loss, it is vital you seek support from a GP or healthcare professional as soon as possible.

“Getting a diagnosis can be daunting but it’s better to know, so that you can access vital help and support for you and your loved ones.

“Our website has a downloadable symptoms checklist that people can take with them to their GP, and please get in touch with Alzheimer’s Society if you need support on 0333 150 3456.”

Dr Susan Mitchell, Head of Policy – Prevention, Early Detection and Diagnosis at Alzheimer’s Research UK said: ‘’Despite there being nearly a million people living with dementia in the UK today, there’s a real lack of awareness of its symptoms. For example, one in two people aren’t aware that memory loss as a sign of the condition, and there’s even lower awareness of other signs, such as problems in communicating, low mood and anxiety, and confusion.

‘’These symptoms can be frightening, both for the person experiencing them and their loved ones. It’s essential to raise awareness of the signs of dementia, so that if they’re noticed, people can seek the support they need from their GP and receive an accurate, timely diagnosis.

‘’This will be particularly important as we look to a more hopeful future in which the diseases that cause dementia becomes treatable. New drugs are on the horizon, and they represent an important first step on a long journey of putting a stop to dementia. At Alzheimer’s Research UK we stand for a cure, and for a world free of the fear, harm and heartbreak of dementia.’’