Many Canadians dismiss signs of dementia as just a normal part of aging and wait far too long before having a doctor check out the symptoms, a survey by the Alzheimer Society of Canada suggests.

In the survey of 958 caregivers, close to half said their loved ones had lived a year or more with symptoms of Alzheimer's or another form of dementia before seeing their family physician.

Of those, 16 per cent waited more than two years to seek a diagnosis, resulting in a huge treatment gap caused by the delay in getting information about medications, support services and better disease management, the survey found.

'We can offer treatment that may slow the progression of the disease'—Naguib Gouda, CEO Alzheimer Society

"Symptoms of dementia are different from normal aging," said Alzheimer Society CEO Naguib Gouda. "We need to help Canadians recognize the symptoms for what they are — signs of a brain disorder that will affect 1.1 million Canadians in the next 25 years.

"While we don't yet have a cure, we can offer treatment that may slow the progression of the disease and a wealth of information to help people prepare for their future needs," Gouda said in a statement.

Results of the online survey, released Wednesday, showed the most-cited reason for delaying diagnosis was the belief that symptoms were part of "old age" or would eventually go away. Almost 40 per cent of respondents also pointed to symptoms being episodic or not taken seriously enough.

More than a quarter of caregivers also said their loved one eventually diagnosed with dementia had either refused to see a doctor or saw no need to go unless symptoms grew worse.

Respondents said the most common early symptoms exhibited were:

  • Frequent memory loss affecting day-to-day functions, such as continually forgetting where the person put things or what they were doing or why they were doing it.
  • Disorientation of time and place, including getting lost even in familiar places or not knowing what month or year it is.
  • Changes in personality or acting out of character, such as becoming suspicious, fearful or confused.

Three-quarters of the caregivers said they wished they'd sought a diagnosis sooner for their loved one so they would have had access to medications to help control symptoms.

Most caregivers also recognized other benefits of early diagnosis: the ability to put legal and financial affairs in order; allowing the person with dementia to live at home longer and participate in decision-making; and being better able to cope with the disease.

"Dementia is a complex disease, but a diagnosis can be reassuring for both the person exhibiting symptoms and their family," said Dr. Francine Lemire of the College of Family Physicians of Canada. "With early diagnosis, medications can help minimize symptoms and improve quality of life."