With symptoms like memory loss, frequent confusions, sleeping problems, personality or mood changes, disorientation, hallucinations, etc. at an old age, one would normally think of the possibility of early stage of dementia. However, a trained doctor will try to first see if there is some other, perhaps curable cause of these symptoms. There are conditions that produce same or very similar symptoms and can be well mistakenly interpreted as dementia. So, is dementia in signs always dementia?
So far there are different tests which will assess cognitive impairment, brain scans, lab tests, but none of these are very accurate methods by which dementia could be proven or ruled out, so the doctor has to lean on experience, the patient’s medical history and their own or the family’s observations. Or rule out all the dozens of other possibilities.
Why Is It So Important That These Are Not Mixed?
First, because these conditions are often curable or at least treatable to minimize the effects. Second, because if missed, the actual condition may remain untreated, taking away the chance from the person to live a healthy life. Third, because treating someone for dementia who doesn’t actually have it, may seriously harm their health.
So, Let’s See What Some of These Conditions Are:
Withdrawal from company of others, consequent isolation, forgetfulness, poor sleeping (or too much of it) are common in dementia, but so are in depression, as well, so it is easily mistaken for the latter. Depression is not a condition you can recover from overnight, but with a suitable medication and therapy, lifestyle changes, it is a treatable condition.
Also can lead to dementia and is very often a companion in an already developed dementia. Therefore, it can be easily mistaken for dementia. However, prior to the actual onset of dementia, it may be successfully treated. The confusing symptoms are difficulties with concentration, restlessness, irritability, disturbed sleep, being agitated, scared, insecure…
This is another condition that can be treated, but they produce symptoms like excessive sleepiness, or lack of sleep, loss of memory, disorientation, confusion, hallucinations – very much like early stages of dementia. The main sign is that in delirium they appear suddenly, sometimes after a traumatic event, while in dementia they develop gradually.
Whether a hypo or a hyper one, both can produce dementia-like symptoms. The first one is the culprit in mood changes, memory and focusing or learning difficulties, while the second one causes restlessness and even anxiousness, which are quite often in dementia. Properly diagnosed, both conditions can be successfully treated.
Having not enough of vitamins B12, B1, B6 can cause irritability, confusion, general slowness, difficulty concentrating. Simply by taking in a suitable level of these vitamins will remove the symptoms that resemble those of dementia. In very rare cases also low levels of niacin and folic acid can actually lead to dementia.
Excessive Alcohol Intake
Drinking much more than normal for a prolonged time can cause memory loss, lack of concentration, or ability to perform everyday tasks. Withdrawal from heavy drinking however, also may produce cognitive impairment at the beginning.
A condition where brain is deprived of oxygen for some time during sleep, can slow down the persons cognitive functions, decrease the ability to focus or be attentive. A healthy sleep in general is essential for normal brain functioning.
Urinary Tract Infection
Sudden mood changes, obvious confusion, depressed behavior may as well be the consequence of an UTI in older persons. It is caused by germs and is more likely to occur when the person is under hydrated. Luckily, it is fairly easily treated by antibiotics and a good amount of liquids (an older person needs about 8 glasses of liquid per day only for normal functioning).
Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus
This is a condition where cerebrospinal fluids (the liquid which is here to absorb any shocks to the brain and to regulate the surrounding pressure) build up in the skull and increase the pressure on the brain. This will cause symptoms like severe forgetfulness, difficulties in walking, controlling the bladder and can lead to dementia. However, removing the cause, the dementia is potentially reversible.
This condition is actually considered a risk factor for developing vascular dementia. But, it can easily be mistaken for an already developing dementia, as it can produce brain changes that are distinctive in mild cognitive impairment, which usually leads to dementia. A severe hypoglycemia (drop of the sugar level in blood) will deprive the brain of the much-needed fuel and will cause difficulties with walking, thinking or performing everyday tasks. It can actually resemble also drunkenness.
Visual and Hearing Impairment
A person with visual impairment can start bumping into furniture at home, or try to cross the street not seeing the approaching car, or not noticing that someone entered the room, etc. A person that do not hear well may not engage in a conversation, for example, or answer your question. These may look like a cognitive decline which is characteristic for early stages of dementia, but are actually easily “cured” by a visual or a hearing aid.
It is in fact a head-injury-caused bleeding around the brain. The tissues will become overfilled with blood and pressure the brain itself. The pressure will affect its normal functioning resulting in behavioral changes, confusion, mind absence, apathy.
A small hematoma can gradually disappear on its own, while bigger ones are treated by various methods, all the way up to surgery. The point, however is, that it can be treated, unlike dementia.
Even a benign tumor can produce extra pressure on brain, damaging the cells and producing symptoms typical for dementia. After having them surgically removed, patients usually recover fully.
On a picnic in the woods or even in your own backyard, or around domestic animals, it is not so difficult to get bitten by a tick. It could pass into your blood stream bacteria that can cause Lime disease. The first typical symptoms are flu-like ones and are successfully treated by antibiotics.
The disease may, however, show its effect even in several months after the bite, when well spread over the body, and will have an impact on the nervous system, producing dementia-like symptoms (confusion, problems with short time memory, difficulties thinking clearly, focusing, performing the daily tasks). In late stage, unfortunately, only about 90% of patients get better.
Medications Side Effects
Pills like sleeping pills, painkillers, some antidepressants and even anti-anxiety medications can be a culprit. Also, even if it is not always directly the side effect of prescribed medications, the mutual effect of various medications can cause a state of confusion, disorientation and generally mental decline.
Liver and Kidney Failure
-will not help, either. This means toxic metabolic waste is not processed properly and washed out of the body. Gradually, it may build up in the blood, and reaching so the brain it can cause mental decline.
These are some of the most common conditions that can be mistaken for dementia. There are dozens more that produce similar symptoms. So, when you think you or your loved one is at the beginning of that cruel disease, before you fall in despair, try finding out if it is rather one of the many curable conditions that only “pretend” to be dementia.
I’d like to hear about your potential experiences on these dementia disguised conditions, if any, in the comments. I’d appreciate it and it may help someone.
And, as always, feel free to reach out should you have any questions and I’ll be happy to give you an answer to the best of my knowledge.
P.S. Did you manage to spot both women in the above drawing?
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