When is it Not Alzheimer’s?

November is Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month

Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common cause of age-associated dementia, affecting approximately 4.5 million Americans. But to date there is no single, definitive test to diagnose it in a person who is experiencing memory loss. For this reason, doctors rely on a process of elimination to determine whether the cause of forgetfulness is Alzheimer’s Disease or one of several other conditions that can mimic its symptoms. Some of these conditions are serious, while others are easily reversible. Alzheimer’s Disease Research, a program of the nonprofit American Health Assistance Foundation reports that while Alzheimer’s Disease is tragically common, it accounts for only 50-80% of all cases of elderly dememtia. Some other possible causes include the following:

Memory loss can be caused by other neurological diseases like Pick’s Disease. This relatively rare but devastating illness usually has its onset between the ages of 40 and 60 and occurs more often in women that in men. It causes severe atrophy in the brain’s frontal and temporal lobes, which are integral to intellectual function and is always fatal. This little-understood disease causes symptoms that almost identical to those of Alzheimer’s Disease, but it runs its course much faster.

Another serious neurological condition that can mimic Alzheimer’s Disease id Creutzfldt-Jakob disease (CJD), which causes rapidly progressing dementia along with muscle-jerking and difficulty walking. CJD is considered by some experts to be the human version of Mad Cow Disease and is also fatal. But unlike some other neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinsons disease CJD can occur in people of all ages.

One of the more common causes of dementia is the accumulation of brain damage from multiple small strokes, or mini-strokes. Called multi-infarct dementia, this condition can impair memory and set off a downward spiral of brain degeneration that is just as devastating as Alzheimer’s Disease. The good news is that people can lower their risk of stroke by managing their blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels. And the brain damage brought on by stroke can be limited by intervention with drugs – either the quick use of tissue plasminogen activator (TPA) drug during a major stroke, or through the regular use of blood thinners and blood pressure medication to prevent small strokes.

Other common causes of Alzheimer’s-like symptoms can be easily reversed once they’ve been identified. Depression, for example, can cause pronounced memory impairments in an older person, but it can be successfully treated. Antidepressant drugs, talk therapy, or a combination of both can usually ameliorate the symptoms of depression. Over-medication or negative drug interactions can cause dementia. This is an all-too-common occurrence in elderly patients, many of whom have several health conditions and see more than one doctor. Sometimes elderly people have trouble keeping up with all the medication they are taking. To avoid dangerous drug interactions, it is always best to take a written list of all your medications to each physician, to make sure that each doctor is aware of all the medications you are taking. Fortunately, the mental confusion and memory loss caused by drug interactions can be reversed once the proper adjustments are made in the patients medication.

Another cause of impaired mental function in an elderly person can by thyroid disease. Hypothyroidism, or the condition in which the thyroid gland does not produce enough hormone, causes drowsiness, confusion and memory impairment. Fortunately, this situation can be corrected by taking a prescription that replaces the thyroid hormone.

A vitamin deficiency can also cause temporary memory loss. The sense of taste often diminishes with age, and along with it can go the appetite. Many older people simply don’t feel the need to eat much, and as a result, they fail to get enough vitamins. A vitamin B12 deficiency, for example, causes Alzheimer’s-like symptoms that will vanish once the person’s nutritional status improves. Those caring for an elderly loved one, as well as older people themselves, need to know that even if they don’t feel the need to eat as much as they did when they were younger, they still need to make sure they get the proper nutrition.

If these and a few other causes of dementia are ruled out by a physician, and if the memory loss is clearly progressive over a matter of months or years, then the diagnosis of “probable Alzheimer’s” is made. This might sound as though the physician isn’t sure about the diagnosis, but doctors are right about 95% of the time when assessing an older person for Alzheimer’s disease.

To learn more about how to diagnose or cope with Alzheimer’s disease in yourself or a loved on, contact Alzheimer’s Disease Research, a program of the American Health Assistance Foundation. You can write to them at 22512 Gateway Center Drive, Clarksburg, MD 20871, call 1-800-437-2423 or visit their website at www.ahaf.org.

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Washington FAMILY Staff

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