• dementia;
  • cognitive impairment;
  • primary care;
  • vulnerable adult;
  • screening

Background: Primary care physicians are positioned to provide early recognition and treatment of dementia. We evaluated the feasibility and utility of a comprehensive screening and diagnosis program for dementia in primary care.

Methods: We screened individuals aged 65 and older attending 7 urban and racially diverse primary care practices in Indianapolis. Dementia was diagnosed according to International Classification of Diseases (ICD)-10 criteria by an expert panel using the results of neuropsychologic testing and information collected from patients, caregivers, and medical records.

Results: Among 3,340 patients screened, 434 scored positive but only 227 would agree to a formal diagnostic assessment. Among those who completed the diagnostic assessment, 47% were diagnosed with dementia, 33% had cognitive impairment—no dementia (CIND), and 20% were considered to have no cognitive deficit. The overall estimated prevalence of dementia was 6.0% (95% confidence interval (CI) 5.5% to 6.6%) and the overall estimate of the program cost was $128 per patient screened for dementia and $3,983 per patient diagnosed with dementia. Only 19% of patients with confirmed dementia diagnosis had documentation of dementia in their medical record.

Conclusions: Dementia is common and undiagnosed in primary care. Screening instruments alone have insufficient specificity to establish a valid diagnosis of dementia when used in a comprehensive screening program; these results may not be generalized to older adults presenting with cognitive complaints. Multiple health system and patient-level factors present barriers to this formal assessment and thus render the current standard of care for dementia diagnosis impractical in primary care settings.