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AARP Bulletin

8 Treatable Conditions That Mimic Dementia

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

Dr. Milton Newman, 7 Conditions That Mimic Dementia

Your dementia-like symptoms may be reversible. They were for Milton Newman. What appeared to be the beginning of Alzheimer's was eventually diagnosed as NPH and successfully treated. — Jeffery A. Salter

En español l With headlines trumpeting the rising rates of Alzheimer's disease, it's easy to get that distressing feeling that a misplaced coffee cup or forgotten dry cleaning might mean that you (or a loved one) are losing your mental edge or, worse, sliding inevitably toward dementia.

But you should know that more than 100 disorders — from the side effects of medication to urinary tract infections — can also trigger dementia-like symptoms. "Some of these conditions are not serious, but they're often missed or misdiagnosed in seniors," says P. Murali Doraiswamy, coauthor of The Alzheimer's Action Plan and chief of biological psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center. "Caught early enough, they may actually be reversible."

Here are eight common disorders that can masquerade as dementia, with information on what you can do about them.

1. Could it be normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH)?

Milton Newman knew something was wrong. For more than 33 years he'd had a thriving dental practice in Peekskill, N.Y. But over a period of about 15 years, his memory became fuzzy and his ability to do simple things around the house deteriorated to the point that his wife, Phyllis, was afraid to leave him home alone. "That was a terrible period," Newman says. "I was a vegetable."

Are you sure it is dementia? Join the discussion

He saw a series of specialists and endured a battery of tests, but no one could figure out what was wrong. "They all said it was the beginning of Alzheimer's," says Phyllis. It wasn't until the couple sold their home and retired to Arizona that a new doctor recognized what was really happening. His problem wasn't Alzheimer's disease — it was normal pressure hydrocephalus, and it was largely reversible.

Following surgery, in which a permanent shunt was inserted into his brain, Newman started to feel like his old self. "It was really a miracle," says Phyllis. "I knew I had him back." The couple has since moved from Arizona to Florida to be closer to grandchildren, and celebrated their 61st wedding anniversary in December.

Why it happens: Newman's symptoms were caused by a gradual buildup of spinal fluid in the brain. The resulting swelling and pressure over time can damage brain tissue.

The symptom that's usually noticed first is a distinctive gait problem. "People shuffle slowly, their legs wide apart for balance," says Richard B. Lipton, director of the division of cognitive aging and dementia at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, N.Y. Other clues: problems with thinking and memory; a lack of concentration; and urinary incontinence or a frequent need to urinate.

What to do now: See a neurologist for a complete physical and medical history. A CT scan, MRI or spinal tap can verify the diagnosis. A shunt surgically inserted into the brain can drain fluid and usually corrects the situation.

Next page: Could it be your medication? »

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