The UK provides drug therapy to a smaller proportion of its Alzheimer's patients than many other European nations, research suggests.
Early diagnosis is important
A survey by analysts Taylor Nelson Sofres found just 21% of UK Alzheimer's patients eligible for drug therapy are currently being treated.
This compares to 77% in France, 73% in Italy and 56% in Spain.
The study, based on 741 Alzheimer's carers, appears in the Journal of International Medical Research.
It also found evidence of long delays before some people in the UK are seen for treatment.
This is partly linked to the fact that only specialists are permitted to diagnose the disease and start treatment, which often involves a referral from the GP - increasing the time from the first appointment to the end diagnosis.
However, carers were also partly to blame for delays in treatment, with 22% saying they waited more than a year from first noticing symptoms to going to a
Anti-dementia drugs are known as acetylcholinesterase inhibitors and include drugs such as Aricept, Exelon and Reminyl.
Lead researcher Dr David Wilkinson, of Moorgreen Hospital, Southampton, said: "Drugs used to slow the progress of symptoms of the illness are particularly effective in the early stages.
"It is therefore important that treatment is started as soon as possible after diagnosis."
Burden on carers
The researchers said dementia should, in its early stages, be managed in primary care.
They also called for better public education on how to recognise symptoms.
The survey also highlighted the burden placed on people caring for an Alzheimer's patient.
In the UK, 62% said they spent every day caring for the patient. In comparison, the figure in France was just 34%.
Dr Wilkinson said: "We do need to rethink how we tackle the way we manage Alzheimer's disease to overcome the treatment bottlenecks.
"More primary care involvement could well be the answer."
More than 750,000 people in the UK are estimated to suffer from dementia.
A Department of Health spokesman said: "It is down to clinicians to decide if
anti-dementia drugs are suitable for individual patients.
"However, the amount spent on dementia drugs has risen significantly from
£4.8m in 2000 to over £22m in 2003.
"The number of prescription items for dementia increased by nearly 80%
between 2001-2002 and 2002-2003.
"There should be no problem with accessing the three main anti-dementia drugs
which have been appraised by NICE.
"If individuals are having problems accessing the NICE appraised drugs, they should contact their local Primary Care Trust."