Is it Really Alzheimer’s?

June 15, 2016

June kicked off National Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness month to share information and provide support for treatment and research of the disease that currently affects well over 5 million people just in the United States alone. Rightfully so, it’s on the minds of many of us who have aging loved ones or are maybe nearing senior status ourselves.

Being aware of the warning signs of Alzheimer’s is critical for proper treatment, care planning and lifestyle choices to truly make the most of the time we have. However, just as important is ensuring that a proper diagnoses is made by a qualified physician or neurologist versus jumping to the conclusion that symptoms indicate Alzheimer’s. Many types of delirium or memory issues can be caused by various treatable  conditions that often closely mimic the warning signs of Alzheimer’s. It is imperative to explore all possibilities when changes become apparent in a loved one’s condition. Misdiagnoses can mean a delay in treatment of the true root-cause and in some cases lead to irreversible decline in health and quality of life. Here are some examples to consider of other conditions that are often confused with Alzheimer’s:


Urinary tract infections are a common cause of confusion, memory issues, delirium and agitation in seniors. Often symptoms appear suddenly and progressively get worse, in contrast with dementia which is usually a gradual and progressive change. Many other types of infections, such as Lyme disease, syphilis, and encephalitis are just a few that can cause changes in behavior often mistaken for Alzheimer’s.


As we develop new medications allowing us to live longer and more comfortably, many find themselves with an extensive list of ongoing meds. As seniors see specialists for separate issues, it’s not uncommon to have medications prescribed by multiple physicians with incomplete knowledge of the persons entire medication regimen. Many medications and supplements interact negatively with others, sometimes causing confusion, memory lapses or other changes that mimic dementia like symptoms. If your loved one is taking multiple medications or supplements and find they’re feeling worse or suffering a sudden change in condition, consult with a physician or pharmacist for a full medication review to determine if the med’s might be the culprit.

Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus:

With Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus, or NPH, spinal fluid gradually accumulates in the brain, causing swelling and pressure which, untreated, can cause damage to the brain tissue. Symptoms can include an unsteady, shuffling gait, memory issues, problems concentrating and incontinence.


It’s no secret that, regardless of age, proper hydration is important. However, for seniors there are many factors that contribute to reduced fluid consumption and an increase in water loss. Some seniors may intentionally limit their water intake due to incontinence or to reduce trips to the bathroom if they have increased urination or limited mobility. Others simply don’t feel as thirsty or lose fluids due to illness. Even slight dehydration can cause someone to feel less clear, but more severe dehydration can cause confusion and delirium along with a host of other health issues. Dehydration can also complicate other conditions such as blood pressure. Caregivers need to ensure their loved one has access to water and to keep track of intake to ensure proper hydration.

Depression or Mental Health Issues:

As we age we continually encounter new challenges. Physical health issues, mobility limitations, change in lifestyle, loss of independence and the passing of family or friends can take a huge mental toll on anyone. Seniors suffering from depression can find that mood, memory, appetite, sleep patterns and the ability to think clearly become impaired. Caregivers or loved ones suspecting depression should assist with making arrangements for an evaluation by a psychiatrist or neurologist specializing in geriatrics.


The most obvious form of cancer affecting cognition is the formation of tumors on the brain which cause damage to brain tissue resulting in symptoms resembling dementia. Cancer stemming from other areas of the body can also affect the brain and cognition through the blood stream or failure of some organ functions.

Alcohol Consumption:

Drinking excessively for a log period of time or even regular binge drinking can result in some conditions, such as Korsakoff syndrome, causing symptoms resembling Alzheimer’s. Loss of both short and long term memory, confusion, unclear thinking and lack of attention are some potential consequences of excessive alcohol use. There may also be changes in behavior, such as increased irritability or unstable moods. Many people that receive treatment and have strong support systems from family, friends and caregivers may achieve partial or full recovery from Alcohol Related Brain Damage.

These are just a few examples of many treatable conditions that may be confused with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. The most important takeaway from this information is that it’s critical for caregivers and family to be very aware of even small changes in their loved one’s cognition and behavior. Even slight changes in condition should never be disregarded and must be followed by a prompt evaluation from a qualified physician. Whether symptoms stem from a treatable condition or from Alzheimer’s, early diagnoses can make all the difference for continued health and quality of life.

About the Author

Doug Breuer is co-founder of and has worked in senior care for the last 9 years for the State of Oregon. From investigating cases of elder abuse to managing the delivery of long term care to residents of Central Oregon, Doug has been involved in all aspects of senior care.

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