The Alzheimer's Society has called for a debate on whether to offer all patients aged 75 years and over screening for dementia, in a bid to boost diagnosis rates and thus secure earlier intervention and better treatment outcomes.

According to the charity, 750,000 people are living with dementia in the UK but more than half of these are never actually diagnosed with the condition, leaving them without appropriate medical intervention and social support.

"A timely diagnosis is essential in order to give people access to care, support and medical treatments that can make a huge difference to their quality of life. We must act now to improve these dismal diagnosis rates," noted Prof Clive Ballard, Director of Research at the Society.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Ballard suggested that when people hit 75 people the could be offered a routine cognitive test - to be conducted at a GP practice - involving questions on time, date, memory and understanding, followed by an interview with a relative or carer. 

In cases where dementia is a possibility, patients should then be referred to a specialist for a more detailed assessment and, where appropriate, offered intervention that could help to delay the progression of the disease.

Costs set to soar

Dementia already costs the UK economy a whopping £23 billion a year, and given that rates are set to rocket to more than one million by 2021, there is an urgent need for earlier recognition of the condition to help the health service better cope with this rising demand.

'We would welcome a debate on the value of screening and any other approaches that could help more people with dementia get an early diagnosis,"  said Ballard. 

One important question to address is whether there are the necessary resources - both financially and time wise - to cope with such a large scale screening programme in the NHS.

In addition, the UK National Screening Committee says both diagnostic tests and treatments must improve to avoid missed cases and incorrect conclusions, according to BBC News.