BACKGROUND: Subjective memory complaints (SMCs) are common among older adults, often causing significant distress and showing strong relationships to future cognitive decline. However, low rates of help-seeking for memory complaints are well documented. Little is known about the reasons behind the decision to seek or not to seek help with memory problems. The common-sense model of illness perception proposes that the beliefs people hold about their health underlie help-seeking behaviour. The present study investigated factors underlying the decision to seek help in people with SMCs within the framework of the common-sense model of illness perception. METHODS: Cognition, illness perceptions, coping styles, depression and anxiety were assessed in 98 adults with SMCs, aged 50 years and above, including 60 attending a memory clinic and 38 non-help-seekers. RESULTS: Objective cognitive performance did not differ between participants who had sought help and those who had not. Logistic regression revealed that illness perceptions including social comparison and causal attributions predict help-seeking behaviour. More general coping style did not predict help-seeking. Furthermore, participants who had sought help were more likely to have had a close relative with dementia. CONCLUSIONS: The results suggest that beliefs about memory, rather than objective cognitive impairment, are associated with the decision to seek help for SMCs. The findings suggest that providing education regarding memory problems, in particular challenging causal attributions, may help to encourage help-seeking in people with SMCs and improve care in the early stages of dementia.