Thousands of people across Cumbria may be living with dementia - despite never receiving a formal diagnosis.

Figures collected by GPs show there are 5,003 people over 65 who have been diagnosed with some form of dementia in the county.

But the real life figure could be as high as 7,394 the NHS states, because of the area's super-aging population.

This means an estimated 2,391 pensioners do not know they are living with the often debilitating illness.

The Department of Health now wants GP surgeries in England to increase the rate of diagnosis so that people have access to the right care as soon as possible.

Judith Reay, dementia support worker with The Alzheimer's Society Carlisle and Eden, said some people were fearful of finding the cause of their memory loss, but she explained there are many significant benefits to an early diagnosis of dementia and dementia-related conditions like Alzheimers disease.

"If you go to see your GP and you receive a diagnosis, it may be something you can receive treatment for," she said.

"There is medication for ilnesses such as Alzheimer's that can actually help slow down the condition.

"It can also unlock a lot of support services for yourself and carers as well as help and advice to enable you to continue to live well for as long as possible."

Mrs Reay added: "Doctors and health professionals in Cumbria are very good at diagnosing people early in a sensitive way.

"There's also a lot less stigma out there now about dementia - people are much more understanding of it."

The Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) said that doctors realised the importance of spotting the signs of dementia early.

But in some circumstances, GPs might delay making a formal diagnosis in the interests of patients and due to pressure on services to support them, the college went on.

Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, RCGP chairman, said: "There may be some situations where GPs might validly consider it in the best interests of the patient to delay seeking a formal diagnosis, especially in the early stages of the condition if there is minimal adverse effect on daily living and functioning and where patients do not want to be labelled.

"This decision might also be influenced by GPs knowledge of the local availability of assessment and treatment services, which may be insufficient to meet demand."

In south Cumbria, great strides have been made over the past five years to transform Ulverston into the county's first dementia friendly town.

It is hoped this work, led by the Ulveston Dementia Action Alliance, will help those with the condition to live independently in their own community for as long as possible.

Janette Jenkinson, from the alliance, said: "An earlier diagnosis is very, very important.

"It's a difficult thing to accept or acknowledge, but once people have done that the treatment out there can really help.

"In Ulverston, we have worked with the community to increase people's understanding of it, and to increase awareness of the support and help available that can help people to live very well for a long time with dementia."

What is dementia?

:: Dementia is a term used to describe symptoms such as loss of memory, behaviour changes and problems in reasoning.

:: The most common cause of dementia is Alzheimer's disease, which accounts for about 60 per cent of cases.

:: It can also be the result of brain damage caused by a stroke or neurological conditions such as Parkinson's.

:: Other types of dementia include vascular dementia.

:: Dementia is a progressive disease that gets worse over time.

:: But medication is available for some forms which slows the disease, allowing people to live well in their own homes.