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General practitioners are often reluctant to administer brief cognitive tests, and to question the relatives of patients who appear to be demented, for fear of causing distress. Diagnoses of dementia are therefore often based on guesswork, and non-demented patients may be rated as cognitively impaired in error. A randomly selected sample of 174 general practice patients aged 80 years and over were asked to complete a simple test of orientation and information in order to assess the usefulness and acceptability of such a procedure. If patients scored 10 points or less out of 12, a relative or other knowledgeable informant was questioned about their changes in mental state and behaviour. Assessments proved acceptable to patients, relatives and doctors; diagnoses were revised in 29 cases; and practical initiatives were proposed in 15 cases. Open discussions with patients and their families proved innocuous and have much to commend them.