Dr Catherine Speechly and colleagues from the NSW and ACT Faculty of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners' Projects, Research and Development Unit asked carers and family members of patients with dementia to describe the steps and the time taken to diagnose dementia.
They found patients or their families usually waited almost two years after the onset of symptoms before they discussed the symptoms with a doctor, and that a diagnosis was eventually made around three years after the onset of symptoms.
"The consequence of this delay is a lost opportunity for earlier medical and social interventions for patients and their families, and prolonged diagnostic uncertainty," Dr Speechly said.
"The timeline we observed suggests that levels of daily functioning were substantially impaired well before a diagnosis was made or resources were used."
Stigma and misinterpretation of symptoms contributed to delays in seeking treatment, and sometimes referral was delayed after an initial GP visit.
"Community education about early symptoms and how and when to act on them could aid earlier recognition of symptoms and possibly earlier presentation to a health professional," Dr Speechly said.
"Health professionals, especially GPs, need to be able to address the needs of patients presenting with possible dementia symptoms and their families with sensitivity to accelerate diagnosis.
"GPs may also wish to consider earlier referral to a dementia specialist.
"As the incidence of dementia increases, it will become more important for our health system to have the tools to support earlier diagnosis to allow earlier clinical and social intervention."