Author: Eileen Lambert
Dementia is a clinical syndrome characterized by memory loss and other forms of cognitive decline that impair daily functions. However, these troublesome symptoms may actually be caused by an unrelated problem whose symptoms copycat Alzheimer’s disease.
One key factor in determining whether it is dementia or another issue is the timeline for the onset of symptoms. Dementia is a progressive disease and comes on slowly without getting any better. If dementia comes on suddenly, it is usually associated with another disease.
More than 50 conditions can cause or mimic the symptoms of dementia. Symptoms subside when the underlying problem is treated. The most common examples are listed below.
Normal pressure hydrocephalus
This condition causes a gradual buildup of spinal fluid in the brain that leads to swelling, pressure, and brain damage. The symptoms of NPH include problems with memory and thinking, a lack of concentration, and urinary incontinence.
Sufferers also tend to shuffle when they walk and hold their legs wide apart for balance. A neurologist can identify the problem with a combination of medical history, a CT scan, MRI, or spinal tap. A shunt surgically inserted into the brain drains the fluid and usually corrects the problem.
Certain prescription drugs may cause patients to suffer from memory glitches caused by long-term buildup of medication. Tell your doctor about all drugs you are taking, including supplements, and ask for options. Don’t stop taking any prescription meds without checking with your health care provider.
Urinary tract infections
UTIs in older people are hard to diagnose because they don’t have the typical symptoms of a high fever and pain. Instead they may suffer from memory loss, delirium, dizziness, agitation, and even hallucinations.
Since elderly people have a tougher time emptying their bladders, bacteria builds up internally interfering with the brain’s ability to send and receive signals. The mental changes brought on by a UTI will happen quickly. True dementia is progressive. Antibiotics, lots of fluids and rest may reverse the symptoms.
Too much or too little blood glucose damages blood vessels in the brain causing memory problems, confusion, irritability and lack of attention. Anything that damages your body can damage the brain. Reversal of diabetes-related cognitive decline depends on how severely the disease has affected the brain.
Symptoms of thyroid disease include feeling sluggish, depressed, forgetful and anxious. Since thyroid disorders develop slowly, the symptoms are often mistaken for normal aging, say experts.
Your primary care physician or endocrinologist can perform a simple blood test to measure thyroid levels. Thyroid disorders can usually be treated with medication but sometimes require surgery to correct.
A vitamin B-12 deficiency can lead to pernicious anemia (blood is low in normal red blood cells) over time. As we age, our bodies cannot absorb this crucial vitamin as well and the deficiency leads to nerve damage, confusion, personality changes, irritability, and forgetfulness.
Blood work can easily measure B-12 levels. If levels are low, supplementation taken orally or by injections most often corrects the dementia-like symptoms of pernicious anemia.