Health issues that mimic dementia

Recently, my family had to deal with the reality that my grandmother may have dementia.

This was 17 years since her husband – my grandfather – had died from complications caused by Alzheimer’s. Well, that’s the official line from the aged care facility in which he passed.

Suffice to say, the whole family was saddened at the possibility of losing another to this insidious disease.

Nan had been experiencing extreme dizziness, forgetfulness, weakness, and other symptoms of dementia. After extensive check-ups and months of worry, it turns out that she was incredibly low in sodium. Increase the salt in her diet and she’s solid again.

(insert huge sigh of relief here)

Turns out that this is not an uncommon occurrence. It seems that many older people present similar symptoms and because of their age are immediately thrown into the ‘it’s probably Alzheimer’s’ pile.

Low sodium is but one of many treatable health conditions that mimic the symptoms of Alzheimer’s and can actually be fixed with medical procedures, a change of lifestyle or medication. If you’re concerned about forgetfulness or other similar signs of dementia, you should seek medical advice immediately, and then a second, third and fourth opinion, before settling on a dementia diagnosis.

Here are the 14 other reasons and symptoms that your ‘dementia’ is not dementia: 

1. Medication
You may have been taking the same medicines for years, but as you age, your body changes the way it metabolises and processes them. This can lead to a build-up of toxins or your dosage, which may need to change, can cause memory impairment. Anyone taking opiates and other painkillers, sleep and anxiety medication, steroids or muscle relaxants who are experiencing dementia-like symptoms should seek advice and maybe have their dosage changed.

2. Normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH)
Normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH) is a gradual build-up of spinal fluid in the brain, which causes inflammation and can damage brain tissue. NPH can be spotted by a slow gait (as can Alzheimer’s), and other symptoms include problems with thinking and memory, low concentration and incontinence. Sound familiar? NPH can be detected by an MRI and relieved with a shunt inserted into the brain.

3. Liver and kidney disease
You don’t have to be taking meds to experience toxic build-up. People with kidney or liver disease may also have an accumulation of nasties in their blood, which can slow your thinking, blunt your mind and mess with your mentals – and can sometimes result in Major Neurocognitive Disorder (MaND).

4. Severe depression
Severe depression can sometimes mimic dementia, through a syndrome of cognitive impairment called pseudo-dementia. Treatment of pseudo-dementia is possible and when it is addressed, the mental decline improves. If not treated, though, people with this condition are highly likely to develop Alzheimer’s very quickly. Fixing depression is not easy but possible through therapy, medication, yoga or meditation.

5. Hormone disruption
Endocrine organ disorders can obstruct the hormones that are normally transported in your bloodstream and control metabolic activities that, when not operating optimally, can damage cognition and disrupt your thinking.

6. Urinary tract infection (UTI)
A build-up of bacteria in the bladder usually causes pain and fever, but in older people these symptoms are less common. For them, symptoms include sudden memory problems, confusion, delirium, dizziness, agitation and, sometimes, hallucinations. Despite this, some experts say that these symptoms only occur to those who already have, or are likely to develop, dementia.

7. Disorders of the Heart and Lungs
If anything interferes with the two organs that deliver blood and oxygen to your brain, MaND could follow, as could symptoms such as dullness, dizziness, memory impairment and overall executive function.

8. Vascular dementia
Vascular dementia takes on two forms: one as a result of a major stroke and the other, subcortical vascular dementia, which is caused by mini-strokes. This leads to impairment of speech and bodily functions which can be confused with Alzheimer’s. Vascular dementia can be relieved through cognitive rehabilitation or medication.

9. Brain tumour
A tumour on your brain, malignant or benign, may press on parts of it that control cognitive function, presenting signs similar to dementia. Many of these can be surgically removed and the earlier you have it diagnosed, the higher the success rate.

10. Vision and hearing issues
Your eyesight and hearing obviously play a huge part in your balance and how your brain processes information, so if either are out of whack, you can feel a little ‘demented’. Best get hearing problems treated soon, as hearing loss can quickly lead to cognitive impairment.

11. Subdural hematoma
Otherwise known as internal bleeding, a subdural hematoma usually occurs as a result of a head injury. The increased pressure caused by the hematoma can lead to dementia-like symptoms. These can be surgically drained or, sometimes, can go away unaided. It’s best to seek medical advice before you make that call, though.

12. Infections
Your body can react to infections in different ways, sometimes by affecting your mental functioning and making it look like you have dementia. Infections such as syphilis or Lyme disease can mimic Alzheimer’s.

13. Toxic Metals

As discussed earlier, a build-up of toxins in your blood can mimic dementia. Heavy metal toxicity can be caused by industrial exposure, air or water pollution, foods such as large ocean-dwelling fish, medicines, food containers, plates, and cookware or accidental ingestion of lead-based paints.

14. Alcoholism

Heavy drinking over an extended period of time, or even binge drinking, can destroy brain cells critical to thinking, decision making and retaining memories. It can also lead to permanent brain injury and impairment of cognitive functions. When combined with other medications, alcohol can also lead to issues with memory and decision making, as well as managing time and otherwise simple tasks. If you suspect that you’re abusing alcohol, seek help.

Were you aware that these conditions presented similar symptoms to Alzheimer’s?

Health disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

Related articles:
Dementia stigma cause for concern
Dementia and managing money matters
Forgetfulness or dementia?

Written by Leon Della Bosca

Leon Della Bosca has worked in publishing and media in one form or another for around 25 years. He's a voracious reader, word spinner and art, writing, design, painting, drawing, travel and photography enthusiast. You'll often find him roaming through galleries or exploring the streets of his beloved Melbourne and surrounding suburbs, sketchpad or notebook in hand, smiling.
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