Are Patients with Dementia Smarter than their Primary Care Practitioners?

Are Patients with Dementia Smarter than their Primary Care Practitioners?

The answer is not necessarily, however patients with dementia work much harder to mask and hide their dementia from the PCP, than their PCP works to diagnose their patients’ dementia.

How Has the Role of a Primary Care Practitioner Evolved?

Due to the increasing numbers of people living with Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease, primary care practitioners, are seeing their patient loads be filled with more and more dementia patients. Primary Care Practitioners are usually the first health professionals that either patients or their families contact if concerned about memory decline. However only 60% of the people who meet the diagnostic criteria receive a formal diagnosis of dementia. Failure/Misdiagnosis rates have been estimated between 50% and 80% for moderate-to-severe dementia and up to 90% for mild cases. PCPs are usually the ones who have a long relationship with patients as well as their families, so patients and their families usually turn to the PCPs for sensitive matters such as memory loss or other signs of dementia.

Why is there such as high rate of Failure and Misdiagnosis? The Too Simple of an Answer…

Most primary care practitioners do not specialize in dementia and therefore symptoms get missed. Most PCPs rush through the appointments and do not take the time to notice dementia symptoms.  Another too simple of an answer, PCPs treat dementia like they do other chronic illnesses by prescribing medications and sending the patient home. Although there is some truth in all these answers, the real answer is much more complicated.

The Real-Life Reason there such as high rate of Failure and Misdiagnosis?

Although there is some truth in the simple answers, they don’t paint the entire picture. Understanding and diagnosing dementia takes more than just being familiar with the typical dementia symptoms and being able to recognize them.  There are many symptoms of Alzheimer’s and Dementia that a person exhibits before significant memory loss. Many people and their families discount these symptoms as just general senility or some other problem. These symptoms include personality changes. A warm, friendly person may turn into a bit of a grouch, at first occasionally, and then increasingly. They may start neglecting some of their grooming habits slowly. A person developing dementia may start telling inappropriate jokes in wrong settings. Another symptom is developing a problem with executive functions, such as difficulty with familiar, tasks such as cooking.  A person will start having difficulty doing something that involves multiple steps, or following instructions. Word retrieval and getting out the right words can become a problem, and it may be a while before friends and family notice the more common communication problem of repeating stories or questions.  Problems with depth perception or visual-spatial coordination can also precede memory problems. Usually these difficulties get blamed on vision problems and not dementia. Apathy and social withdrawal are also common with dementia. All these symptoms often precede memory loss, yet can easily be justified as being caused by something else other than dementia. Until a certain point, these symptoms do not significantly impact a person’s life, and therefore get ignored, and ultimately dementia is not diagnosed. One of the largest culprits of a missed diagnosis is masking by the person that has dementia. People with dementia usually notice something is wrong and they do everything they can to hide it. So even if a PCP asks their patient about one of the above symptoms, the patient easily comes up with a pliable excuse, such as they are tired and don’t 111214_TECH_doctorpatient.jpg.CROP.rectangle3-largewant to do a hobby, the weather is bad, they are stressed, they need new glasses, they are not sleeping well and therefore their mind is foggy, and on and on. If a person with dementia misses their appointment, they are likely to blame it on the doctor’s office, or someone else, and even avoid making future appointments all together, due to the fear of missing the next appointment. It is very difficult, if not impossible for a PCP that treats a spectrum of patients including those with dementia and without to be able to pick up on these subtle symptoms. They are not focusing on these subtle symptoms, and because many of their patients do not have dementia, dementia and its symptoms are not in the fore front.

Why We Rarely See a Person with Mild Dementia Move to Assisted Living?

Since upwards to 90% of people with mild dementia get misdiagnosed or missed, most people do not realize something is wrong until there are blatant symptoms that usually harm a person in some way. Most people do not notice or get alarmed with a few missed medication doses, until a person either takes to many pills, or takes too few, gets dizzy, and falls. Even in those cases, they go to the hospital and the fall is at the forefront, and not the dementia that caused a person to forget their medications and fall. Rarely do families notice that their loved one is not eating, until there is a significant and visual weight loss. Families usually do not notice that their loved one is neglecting their grooming until they look obviously disheveled. They don’t notice personality changes, until something out of character and usually embarrassing occurs in public, very often in church. Most people with dementia improve their masking abilities over time, and their dementia is not addressed until they are not able to mask anymore, which is usually in the Early Moderate Stage of Dementia. By that time in many cases, substantial damage has been done, such as substantial weight loss, a broken bone due to an avoidable fall, and so much more.

The Take Away….

The solution to the huge percentages of failure/misdiagnosis of dementia, and the damage caused by these misses, is multi-faceted. There is a need for Comprehensive Dementia Education, Dementia Sensitive Primary Care Clinics and Doctors, and Cognitive Care Communities specializing in all levels of dementia from Mild to Severe. To find out more about the importance of a cognitive care community visit;
The next several posts will detail ideas and solutions to combating dementia caused crisis, and decrease the failure/misdiagnosis rates. Visit