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What If It Isn't Dementia?

By Crystal JoNovember 16, 2018
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It is often assumed that dementia is an inevitable part of aging, as the disease currently affects over 50 million people worldwide. What you need to know, however, is that dementia symptoms can have a variety of causes.

Learn which causes of dementia may be preventable, reversible or treatable.

Maybe It Isn’t Dementia: Symptoms to Investigate

It may seem obvious to you that your parent or senior loved one has dementia.

The signs are all there:

  • Impaired thinking
  • Increased confusion
  • Loss of short-term memory
  • Poor reasoning skills
  • Trouble communicating

Dementia is a broad term that is used when there is a decline in a senior’s mental ability that affects their day to day life.

There are many causes and other possible reasons for the signs that you see in your senior loved one, however.

Here are five conditions that you should investigate before assuming that your parent or senior loved one has dementia:

1. Delirium

Delirium can often show the same symptoms as dementia. You will see confusion, forgetfulness and possible paranoia, but delirium will come on quickly – within a few hours or days. Your parent or senior loved one may have been bright and clear last week, but now you suddenly notice symptoms.

Look into delirium as a possible cause if your loved one has had:

  • A reaction to medication
  • An infection
  • Diabetes
  • Exposure to toxic substances
  • Injury
  • Overuse of or withdrawal from substances like alcohol or prescription medications
  • Stroke
  • Surgery

2. Head Trauma

Aging adults are the population with the highest rate of traumatic brain injury (TBI). Falls are the leading cause of brain injury in seniors and studies have found that there can be progressive symptoms that appear for at least a year after a brain injury.

Consider brain injury as a cause if your loved one has ever experienced a loss of consciousness or was involved in:

  • A motor vehicle accident
  • Full contact sports, like boxing, football or hockey
  • The military or in any active combat

When a head trauma is causing dementia symptoms, you will also often see:

  • Chronic headaches
  • Depression
  • Explosive rage
  • Mood swings
  • Substance abuse

Identifying head trauma as the cause can help with finding an effective treatment for the symptoms.

3. Hearing and Vision Loss

If your parent or senior loved one cannot hear or see clearly you might see what looks like signs of dementia. Your loved one may be confused about where they are. You might notice that they don’t remember what you have talked about. They can’t find objects that are sitting out in plain view. Or they may not follow a conversation.

A loss of hearing or vision can be caused by:

  • Cataracts
  • Infection
  • Injury
  • Macular degeneration
  • Stroke

Before you assume that the symptoms are dementia, make sure that your loved one has had their hearing and vision checked. Not being able to see or hear can make your loved one feel more isolated and not able to take care of themselves. This can lead to or speed up a cognitive decline.

4. Infection

Infections can mimic the symptoms of dementia, causing delirium.

One of the most common types of infection in older adults that causes mental decline is a urinary tract infection (UTI).

UTIs are more common in women than in men and can be quickly treated with antibiotics. Unfortunately, the symptoms of a UTI may be missed. You might notice that your loved one has suddenly become more agitated, confused or withdrawn. Last week they were able to communicate clearly but now they are irritable and can’t remember.

An infection that affects the ability to communicate makes it harder to diagnose.

5. Stroke

A stroke can cause symptoms of dementia. A stroke is a disease of the brain and happens when there is not enough blood flow to the brain cells causing cell death.

If your parent or senior loved one is having “mini-strokes” that do not cause complete loss of blood to the brain, you see a progressive decline in:

  • Behavior
  • Language
  • Memory
  • Personality
  • Reasoning
  • Speech
  • Thinking

It is important to rule out strokes which cause vascular dementia as a possible cause. When a vascular disease is caught early, it is treatable and further damage can be prevented.

When to Talk to a Doctor About Symptoms

The best approach to getting an accurate diagnosis is to provide a doctor with accurate information.

Dementia is diagnosed based on:

  • A medical history
  • Changes that are noted
  • Laboratory tests
  • Physical examination

These tests will help the doctor determine what is and what isn’t causing the symptoms. Remember to keep a journal of the symptoms you have noticed before you take your loved one to the doctor.

Write down:

  • What makes the symptoms better
  • What makes the symptoms worse
  • What time of day makes the symptoms better or worse
  • What you specifically notice about the symptoms
  • What your loved one eats and drinks on a regular basis
  • When the symptoms started

You will also want to report to the doctor if your loved one has had a:

  • Change in medication
  • Head injury
  • Sudden changes in function and personality
  • Surgery

Dementia is a common and frustrating disease. Sudden changes in your parent or senior loved one’s cognitive function should not be ignored. Talk to a doctor about all possible causes. Your loved one may benefit from treatment that can help the symptoms.

Have you ever wondered if a senior loved one was experiencing symptoms of dementia or not? What was the outcome?We’d like to hear your stories in the comments below.

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Crystal Jo