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AARP Bulletin

8 Treatable Conditions That Mimic Dementia

Worried about forgetfulness? It may be a problem you least suspect

4. Could it be a urinary tract infection (UTI)?

UTIs are often missed in older people because seniors rarely have the typical symptoms of a high fever or pain. Instead there may be memory problems, confusion, delirium, dizziness, agitation, even hallucinations.

That's what happened to 80-year-old Dorothy McGlinn from the Chicago area. One morning, her husband noticed that she was speaking strangely. Over the next week, she began to make no sense at all. She was in a lot of pain, couldn't get out of bed and seemed to be getting worse by the minute, so her husband rushed her to the hospital. "When I arrived at the hospital, she didn't recognize me," says her daughter, Mary Meyer. "We were panicked." They were lucky. Doctors quickly realized that Dorothy was suffering from a UTI. She was put on an antibiotic and improved dramatically within 24 hours.

Why it happens: Due to an overall weakened immune system as well as weak bladder muscles, older people may not empty their bladders completely. As more urine is held, bacteria can build up in the bladder, leading to infections that interfere with the brain's ability to send and receive signals. Confusion and delirium may be the only sign of the infection in older people. Whereas dementia is often a long, progressive change, the mental changes brought on by a urinary tract infection will happen quickly and "often can completely resolve with treatment," says Tomas Griebling, vice chair in the department of urology at the University of Kansas School of Medicine.

What to do now: Most urinary tract infections are easily treated with antibiotics, lots of fluids, a healthy diet and rest.

5. Could it be your thyroid?

According to the American Thyroid Association, roughly 30 million people (most over age 50) have thyroid disease — and half of them don't even know it. They just feel sluggish, depressed, forgetful or anxious.

Why it happens: The thyroid, a small butterfly-shaped gland that straddles the lower windpipe, secretes hormones that keep every system in the body running smoothly. "Thyroid disorders develop slowly — one reason symptoms are often mistaken for normal aging," says Borna Bonakdarpour, a professor of neurology at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine and an investigator at its Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center. Both too little and too much thyroid hormone may trigger dementia-like symptoms.

What to do now: See your primary care doctor or an endocrinologist for a simple blood test to measure thyroid levels. Thyroid problems can usually be treated successfully with medications but sometimes require surgery.

Next page: Could it be a vitamin B-12 deficiency? »

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