Dementia is a substantial and increasing public health concern. Despite decades of research, a cure or effective preventative treatment for dementia remains elusive. We offer critical review of contemporary dementia research and discuss potential reasons why progress in the field has not been as rapid as in other disciplines. We adopt a broad approach in keeping with the broad nature of the topic. We cover the difficulties inherent in studying dementia from 'bench' to 'bedside' to 'population'. We make particular reference to issues of operationalisation of the dementia syndrome and our evolving understanding of dementia as a research 'outcome'. We discuss contemporary 'hot topics' in dementia research methodology focussing on dementia models, pre-dementia states and biomarkers. Recognising the importance of prospective epidemiological cohorts and large-scale clinical trials we pay particular attention to these approaches and the challenges of generating results that have 'real world' external validity. Based on our thoughts we end with suggestions for future dementia research. Our review is designed to be critical but not unnecessarily negative. There is reason for cautious optimism in dementia research. The recent G8 summit on dementia and subsequent establishment of the World Dementia Council are examples of initiatives that reflect societal and political will to increase research efforts in dementia.