Similar symptoms but easily treated
Memory loss, difficulty solving problems and confusion about time or place likely signal one degenerative disease to most people—Alzheimer’s.
But showing those signs and symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean you or your loved one has Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.
"There are a number of conditions and diseases that may make you think of Alzheimer’s disease, but they’re not," explained Dr. Glen Finney, director for Geisinger Aging Brain and Behavioral Neurology. "That’s why it’s important to undergo a complete medical assessment to confirm whether a loved one has the disease."
Here are some treatable medical issues that mimic symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.
The medications your doctor prescribes could provide different side effects as you age. Some types of drugs such as opioids for pain; benzodiazepines for anxiety or stress; antimuscarinics for urinary incontinence; and muscle relaxers for muscle tightness could cause memory loss and side effects that could be mistake for Alzheimer’s disease.
"That’s why it’s so important to keep track of the medications you’re taking, why you are taking them and keep your doctors up to date," said Dr. Finney. "If you’re helping to care for a loved one, you want to keep a list of prescription and over-the-counter medications the person is taking and why they take them." If someone is having memory and thinking problems or at risk for them, there are almost always other brain-sparing therapies that can be used to help them without causing or worsening memory and thinking problems.
Urinary Tract Infection
A urinary tract infection (UTI) happens when bacteria reaches the urethra, the tube that carries urine out of the bladder. As you age, your risk of a UTI increases. Unfortunately, the symptoms of UTIs in the elderly differ from children and adults. Many older people with UTIs become confused, have difficulty paying attention or even hallucinate. If people who had no problems with memory and thinking start to have these problems over days to a few months, then the problem might be a UTI.
Fortunately, a simple urine test can confirm a UTI, and antibiotics can treat it. For some older people it can take weeks to months to fully get back to themselves after infections.
Sleeping more and little desire to spend time in social situations are two signs of depression. But having difficulty focusing or remembering tasks are two more signs of depression that mimic Alzheimer’s disease. Depression is common in elderly people but many of them don’t get treatment for it, which could affect quality of life.
"Having a frank conversation with your doctor can help determine if you could be depressed or if your symptoms point to another condition," said Dr. Finney. "If someone has depression it needs to be treated through either therapy or medication or both. If the memory or thinking issues go away with treating the depression then that is the likely problem, but if they continue even after effectively treating depression, then it needs to be evaluated."
Vitamin B12 Deficiency
B12 is an important vitamin that helps your body make red blood cells, DNA and nerves. But your body can’t make B12 on its own; instead, you get B12 from eggs, fish, meat, dairy and other animal products. This means people who eat vegetarian or vegan diets often need a B12 supplement.
A B12 deficiency could lead to getting lost easily, becoming forgetful or getting easily agitated, in addition to other symptoms such as weight loss, tingling in hands or feet, and constipation. Even low B12 levels that are technically in the ‘normal’ range can cause problems with memory and thinking.
A vitamin B12 deficiency is diagnosed with a blood test. To treat it, your doctor can prescribe vitamin B12 in the form of a pill or an injection.
"If you or a loved one are experiencing symptoms that look like Alzheimer’s disease, you shouldn’t panic, but you should talk to your doctor about them and conducting a thorough exam and tests to determine the cause of these symptoms," said Dr. Finney.
Dr. Glen Finney, MD, is director for Aging Brain and Behavioral Neurology at Geisinger. To schedule an appointment with Dr. Finney or another Geisinger neurologist, please call 570-808-3200 or visit Geisinger.org.