There are many conditions that mimic Alzheimer’s disease. This can be a cause for concern in older adults who fear they’re developing dementia due to symptoms such as disorientation, forgetfulness and slowness.
Though these symptoms do often indicate dementia, there are also times when they’re simply imitating the disease (and camouflaged as another, treatable condition). Sometimes, doctors are even fooled when dementia-like symptoms present themselves in people who actually don’t have the disease.
1. Medication side-effects
Many medications can be a culprit in cognitive decline. Confusion as a side effect of prescription drugs might lead an individual to worry about dementia.
Moreover, adverse reactions to medications and toxic build-up of drugs in the body sometimes lead to mental decline. Drugs with anticholinergic properties (a chemical in the brain that plays a key role in attention, concentration and memory formation) are a notable culprit of pseudo-dementia symptoms.
“The drugs that I’m most worried about in my clinic, when I need to think about what might be contributing to older patients’ memory loss or cognitive changes, are the anticholinergics,” said Dr. Rosemary Laird, a geriatrician and medical director of the Maturing Minds Clinic at AdventHealth in Winter Park, Fla.
If you’re concerned about your medication side-effects, talk to your primary care physician.
2. Normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH)
Losing your balance and losing your memory are scary symptoms that often foreshadow Alzheimer’s disease — however, this isn’t always the case. A condition called normal pressure hydrocephalus, or NPH, resembles symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia but can be treated and controlled.
NPH is an accumulation of excess cerebrospinal fluid in the brain’s ventricles. “This is a disease that is probably more common than we think it is, and this is a disease that can be treated very well, with a huge dramatic change of quality of life for these people,” neurologist Dr. Alfonso Fasano told Considerable.
According to Sunrise Senior Living, older adults who are depressed often think they have Alzheimer’s. This is because symptoms of depression can include disorientation, forgetfulness, slowness and lack of focus.
Overcoming depression is by no means easy, and can be a lifelong journey. However, unlike dementia, it is treatable. “Seeing a professional therapist can help you gain emotional outlets [to help manage your depression],” Katie Ziskind, a licensed therapist, told Considerable.
4. Forgetting words
Memory deficits are often a tell-tale sign of dementia, but not always. Take forgetting a word, for instance. “Forgetting a word can be frustrating, but most of the time the situation resolves itself quickly,” Arika Okrent wrote for Considerable. “The word comes back, and we continue.” This is referred to as a “tip of the tongue moment.” A 1991 study found that most tip of the tongue states cured themselves nearly spontaneously without too much trouble.
“Some infections produce a prolonged change in mental functioning that lacks signs clearly linked with delirium. Lyme disease, syphilis, or HIV for example, are capable of mimicking [dementia],” James M. Ellison, MD, MPH wrote for the Bright Focus Foundation.
The most important thing is to be open and honest with your doctor, so that you’re able to be accurately diagnosed. Advocating for yourself (or having a loved one advocate for you) can also go a long way in receiving the correct diagnosis. Many times, your condition will be treatable.
6. Vitamin B12 deficiency
Vitamin deficiencies can lead to significant health repercussions, and low levels of vitamin B12 can mimic dementia symptoms.
That’s because low B12 levels can lead to a type of anemia characterized by confusion and irritability.
7. Subdural hematoma
A subdural hematoma occurs when injury to the head causes abnormal bleeding in the brain. This leads to blood build-up in the tissue surrounding the brain.
According to the Alzheimer’s Disease Association, the prolonged pressure caused by a subdural hematoma can lead to dementia-like symptoms like apathy, behavioral changes and confusion.
A subdural hematoma is treatable or may even go away with time.
8. Brain tumor
A benign tumor, called a meningioma, can be a culprit of dementia-like symptoms. This is because a meningioma leads to cognitive decline, which is easy to mistake for Alzheimer’s disease.
These tumors, however, can often be surgically removed.