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AARP Bulletin

8 Treatable Conditions That Mimic Dementia

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

6. Could it be a vitamin B-12 deficiency?

This essential vitamin — necessary for the development of red and white blood cells — is found in animal products, such as meat, poultry, eggs and milk. Unless you're a longtime vegan, you probably get enough from your diet. However, some people as they age become unable to absorb vitamin B-12, a condition known as pernicious anemia. The result: nerve damage such as numbness or tingling in the hands and feet, confusion, personality changes, irritability, depression and forgetfulness.

Why it happens: Pernicious anemia is an autoimmune deficiency that develops when the stomach stops making the substance necessary to properly absorb B vitamins.

What to do now: See your doctor for a complete physical and blood tests. Unlike other anemias, pernicious anemia does not respond to iron. But for most people, supplemental B-12, taken orally or by injection once a month, corrects the problem.

7. Could it be diabetes?

According to the American Diabetes Association, 25 percent of Americans over age 60 have diabetes.

Why it happens: Your body needs a certain amount of glucose (sugar) to keep blood vessels functioning properly. Too much or too little glucose damages blood vessels in the brain, robbing it of the energy needed to create new neurons. The result: memory problems, confusion, irritability, inattention.

What to do now: Reversal of diabetes-related cognitive symptoms depends on how severely the disease has affected the brain. "That's why it's so important to catch it early or prevent it in the first place," says Duke's Doraiswamy. It's crucial to carefully monitor blood sugar levels and insulin if you have diabetes. Losing weight, exercising and eating a healthy diet can make a big difference.

8. Could it be alcohol-related?

"Alcohol abuse, even binge drinking for a short time when you're young, destroys brain cells in areas critical for memory, thinking, decision making and balance," says Fotuhi.

Why it happens: Besides destroying brain cells, heavy drinking can also lead to an unhealthy diet that deprives the brain of key nutrients, such as thiamine (vitamin B-1). Severe thiamine deficiency may also lead to Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS), a chronic memory disorder characterized by confusion, memory loss, hostility and agitation.

What to do now: Depending on the damage, the effects of long-term alcohol abuse can sometimes be reversed. WKS can be treated with thiamine replacement therapy. If you suspect you have alcohol-related memory problems, seek help to stay sober.

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