The troublesome symptoms of dementia may actually be caused by an unrelated problem whose symptoms copycat Alzheimer’s disease.
Dr. Gary Small, a noted expert on Alzheimer’s disease and co-author with Gigi Vorgan of the best-selling book, “The Alzheimer’s Prevention Program,” tells Newsmax Health that “a long list of medical conditions” can cause dementia syndrome.
“Dementia is a clinical syndrome characterized by memory loss and other forms of cognitive decline that impair functional or occupational functioning or both,” says the director of geriatric psychiatry at the University of California-Los Angeles Longevity Center and author of the Mind Health Report newsletter.
“Certain medical conditions and situations can mimic the symptoms and confuse the diagnosis. That is why it’s important, if you are concerned about your memory, to consult with your doctor because one of these treatable conditions can be the real culprit. Also, if the cause turns out to be non-reversible like Alzheimer’s disease, early detection and treatment leads to better patient outcomes.”
Dr. Gabe Mirkin, an Orlando-based physician and author of “The Healthy Heart Miracle,” says a key factor is the timeline for the onset of symptoms.
“Dementia is a progressive disease and comes on slowly without getting any better,” he notes. “If dementia — or more correctly delirium — comes on suddenly, it is usually associated with another disease that is evident when a person suddenly acts demented.”
According to Harvard University research, “more than 50 conditions can cause or mimic the symptoms of dementia. Symptoms subside when the underlying problem is treated. Two common examples are dementia caused by B-12 deficiency or an underactive thyroid.”
Here are examples:
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 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.
Medication. People who certain prescription drugs may 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 older folks 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,” Mirkin notes. “True dementia is progressive. Antibiotics, lots of fluids and rest may reverse the symptoms.”
Diabetes. According to the American Diabetes Association, 25 percent of Americans over the age of 60 have diabetes. 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,” says Mirkin. Reversal of diabetes-related cognitive decline depends on how severely the disease has affected the brain. “That’s why it is so important to prevent diabetes in the first place and how crucial it is to monitor blood sugar levels and insulin,” he says.
Thyroid disorders. According to the American Thyroid Association, approximately 30 million people over the age of 50 have thyroid disease and may feel 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.
B-12 deficiencies. Another common dementia impersonator is caused by a vitamin B-12 deficiency that leads to pernicious anemia 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.
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