If I started becoming confused about where I was, or where I parked the car, or how to get to a place I’ve been to a hundred times before, I know exactly where my mind would go - straight into panic mode. What if my family bought into the symptoms as an indicator of Alzheimer’s or my doctor didn’t investigate further due to that troublesome little gene I have? I’m really hoping they’d give me a chance and run further tests, or that I’d be cognizant enough to ask, but how many people have a disease or condition that looks like dementia but really isn’t and it goes undiagnosed?
There are several conditions that can mimic the beginnings of Alzheimer’s Disease or dementia. It doesn’t apply in my mom’s case, but I wonder how many seniors have undiagnosed conditions that have tragically altered their remaining years? For instance, I know how important nutrition is, especially for seniors, and poor nutrition or a condition that makes it difficult for the body to utilize certain nutrients can have a severe effect on mental cognition. Specifically, a deficiency in vitamin B12 can cause a certain type of anemia whose symptoms include mental slowness, irritability, and confusion. In addition, other vitamin deficiencies, most commonly vitamins B1 and B6, can mimic the symptoms of dementia. A deficiency in niacin or folic acid can also be the cause but it isn’t quite as common.
Those are just the first two of the ten most common conditions whose symptoms can look like the onset of dementia. As an aside, for the sake of simplicity, I’m going to use the term “dementia” since there are many forms of dementia and Alzheimer’s is just one of them. Here are the other eight conditions:
3). Medication side effects. As we age, our liver and kidneys don’t function as well as they used to and certain drugs can build up to toxic levels which can cause symptoms that look like dementia. A review of all medications with one doctor would be a good place to start if a change in behavior is noticed, especially since as we age we get the fun of having specialized physicians for different conditions and sometimes wires get crossed or medications aren’t from the same pharmacy and interactions aren’t quite as easy to catch.
4). Depression. I can tell you first hand that depression can be insidious, it’s not usually the first thing you think is wrong when the symptoms begin showing up. All of us have experienced being forgetful, mental fogginess, lack of focus, and feeling out of sorts on occasion; however, when these feelings persist over time, perhaps for months, the first thought may be that something is really wrong, that perhaps you’re ill. Or, in the case of seniors, they may believe they're showing the first signs of dementia. If someone already has that fear in the back of their mind, you can understand how scared they would be to ask for help.
5). Thyroid. If there is too much or not enough thyroid output, the resulting symptoms can look like the onset of dementia.
6). A subdural hematoma. This is most likely caused by a fall that results in a buildup of pressure due to the collection of blood between the outer tissues of the brain and the brain itself and can be life threatening. Large ones may be able to be drained surgically while small ones may go away on their own. Any head injury, especially one in which there was a loss of consciousness, even for a second, deserves a closer look by a medical professional.
7). Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus (NPH). NPH is caused by the gradual buildup of brain fluid which causes pressure that can damage brain tissue. One of the first symptoms of NPH is a change in how a person walks; once they get started from a standing position, it looks almost as if their feet are stuck to the ground. Other symptoms include delirium and confusion.
8). Urinary Tract Infection (UTI). Seniors may not have the typical pain and fever symptoms of a UTI. They may, however, have sudden memory problems, confusion, dizziness, agitation, or hallucinations though it’s most likely these symptoms will occur in someone who already has dementia.
9). Brain tumor. Brain tumors are no joking matter but there have been days where I just know something must be going on to make me so disjointed. Alas, and thankfully, there is nothing to blame but me. In reality, meningiomas are a certain type of brain tumor that can cause cognitive changes, changes in personality, and changes in vision and hearing that may be mistaken for dementia. Being female seems to increase the risk of developing this type of tumor
10). Vascular dementia. When brain cells are damaged by a stroke or disease, cognitive impairment, trouble concentrating, and mood swings may be the result. It’s difficult to tell the difference between this and the beginning of Alzheimer’s; however, when these changes occur suddenly the cause could be a stroke or a series of small strokes that have gone unnoticed. Treatment of the cause of the stroke is the best way to keep the dementia symptoms from increasing and cognitive therapy such as brain exercises can help. Unlike Alzheimer’s, whose life expectancy is eight to 10 years or more, death is much more likely to occur within 5 years of the onset of vascular dementia symptoms, most likely due to a heart attack or stroke.
These are only some of the most common conditions that can mimic dementia symptoms - there are many more that are less common but still worth looking into. Any change in personality or ability to retain information, especially if your family members are concerned, should be addressed by a doctor as soon as it’s noticed. Not being able to remember the name of an acquaintance, occasionally forgetting events, or having to search for a word is normal. Not recognizing family members or very recent events is not.
I know of only one person who was suspected of maybe having dementia but due to his wife’s diligence and her nursing degree, she got him in to see specialists who later were able to diagnose his symptoms as being the result of a vitamin deficiency due to a medical condition. I remember when she told me he was having issues - my heart hurt for her and her husband. I also remember when she told me he was going to be ok - I still rejoice whenever I see pictures of them enjoying their grandchildren or having a night out. That small glimpse into what they could have lost and what they were feeling was so frightening and I’m so glad there was a happy ending to that chapter of their lives.