OBJECTIVE: To determine the association between factors unrelated to the disease process, the duration of symptoms and the degree of cognitive or functional impairment in elderly patients presenting with dementia. METHOD: The living situation, educational level, age, gender and diagnosis based on standardized criteria were recorded for 209 elderly patients presenting to a memory clinic with dementia. Cognitive and functional deficits were measured with the cognitive section of the Cambridge Mental Disorders of the Elderly Examination combined with the Mini-Mental State Examination and the abbreviated version of the Blessed dementia scale, respectively. RESULTS: 129 patients had a diagnosis of probable Alzheimer's disease, 19 had probable ischaemic vascular dementia and 61 had mixed dementia. There was no effect of diagnosis on duration of symptoms or dementia severity at the time of presentation. Patients living with a son or daughter were more functionally impaired than those living alone or with a spouse. Males had higher cognitive scores but did not have milder functional deficits. Patients with only a primary-school education had a trend towards lower cognitive scores at presentation but did not have more functional deficits. CONCLUSIONS: The gender of the patient and the relationship to the carer are associated with cognitive and functional scores at the time of presentation in patients with dementia.