The routine screening of all elderly patients for dementia would be a “disaster” as the stigma and anxiety caused by being diagnosed before symptoms appear could greatly outweigh any benefits, an expert has warned.
Screening is pointless in any case, because there is no treatment for dementia and no prospect of an imminent breakthrough, says Dr Chris Fox from the University of East Anglia’s medical school.
At present, routine screening does not take place in the UK, but some have called for it. A diagnosis can be made following cognitive tests and a brain-imaging referral.
But Dr Fox, who will speak at the TEDMED Live healthcare conference in Bristol later today, believes the risk of misdiagnosis is too high. “World figures for dementia are skyrocketing towards a predicted 60 million in around 10 years,” he will say. “We are experiencing a dementia tsunami, with the crest of the wave yet to come. But rolling out routine dementia screening will be an even worse disaster. People who are diagnosed with very early-stage dementia will be worse off than people who are not diagnosed until their dementia is more apparent.”
Dr Fox adds: “Current tests are not particularly robust and there is a relatively high risk of misdiagnosis so all of this turmoil could be even more unnecessary. It is unfair to cause fear and concern when treatments are not available, the chances of the condition actually progressing are not clear, and when symptoms may never take hold in the patient’s lifetime.”
A Department of Health spokeswoman said: “There is currently no benefit in trying to diagnose people with dementia before they show clear symptoms. We do, nonetheless, encourage an early diagnosis and referral for those who show symptoms.”