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GPs 'fail to spot early dementia'

GPs are failing to spot dementia early enough, leaving patients without access to treatments which could help them, experts have warned.

People diagnosed with dementia by their family doctors also live fewer years than those actively screened for the disease in research studies.

Scientists from the Medical Research Council (MRC) analysed data from more than 350 UK GP surgeries between 1990 and 2007. The study is the first of its kind to analyse life expectancy after dementia as recorded by GPs.

Experts found that patients aged 60 to 69 had an average life expectancy of 6.7 years once diagnosed with dementia by their doctors. A previous MRC study has shown that people in a comparable age range actively screened for dementia as part of a research study have a life expectancy of 10.7 years.

The research also revealed death rates are more than three times higher in people with dementia in the first year after GP diagnosis than in those without the condition. This could indicate people received their diagnosis at a time of crisis or when the disease had already taken a strong hold, experts said.

The study, based on records from more than 135,000 people aged 60 and over, also found GPs were recording dementia in a non-specific way and were not differentiating between Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia. This could affect the types of treatments people receive in the long-term and how their disease is managed.

Studies have suggested that the number of people with dementia and Alzheimer's disease will almost double every 20 years worldwide, to 115.4 million in 2050. At present, some 750,000 people in the UK have a form of dementia, with more than half of these suffering from Alzheimer's.

Experts predict nearly a million people in the UK will be living with dementia in 20 years, soaring to 1.7 million people by 2051.

Chris Kennard, chair of the MRC neuroscience and mental health board, said: "It's clear that too little too late is being done to diagnose dementia. Without earlier diagnosis people may miss out on the opportunity to have early interventions, as new treatments come along. It's estimated that 80 million people worldwide will be affected by dementia by 2040 so it's crucial GPs are given the support and training they need to get to grips with identifying dementia accurately and as early as possible."

Dr Greta Rait, who led the study, published online in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), said: "Until now most survival estimates have come from studies where people have been actively screened for dementia but the reality is that medical care for dementia patients tends to fall with family doctors. Our findings will help clinicians to make more realistic estimates of life expectancy for patients when they are diagnosed and also assist policymakers in planning services."

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