In our fast-paced society, it is all too easy to forget a few things in the course of a day. It might be to drop off a check for a child’s field trip or pick up milk for home. However, when an aging loved one begins to exhibit some of the symptoms and behaviors commonly associated with dementia like forgetfulness, you might find yourself wondering if this is a normal part of the aging process or something more serious. Adult children commonly make a quick leap to Alzheimer’s disease. There are, in fact, other treatable conditions that can mimic it.
The Warning Signs of Alzheimer’s Disease
What can an adult child do if you suspect your parent has a problem? First, know the Alzheimer’s warning signs. They include:
1. Memory loss: If a senior loved one forgets an appointment or errand they were supposed to run, do they remember it later? If a person forgets where they left their dry cleaning receipt when they need it, for example, that isn’t cause for alarm if they remember later. In contrast, a person with early Alzheimer’s disease may not remember having been to the dry cleaner.
2. Impaired abstract thought process: Is your aging family member struggling to complete tasks they have routinely accomplished many times? Let’s say, for example, your father was always meticulous about the care of his car. Several times a week he stopped to clean it himself at a self-serve car wash. Now he has trouble figuring out how to put his money in to start the power washer. It might mean his abstract thought process is impaired. That can be a warning sign of Alzheimer’s.
3. Getting lost in familiar places: This is the scenario we often associate with Alzheimer’s disease. A senior who gets lost on their way to or from familiar places is a cause for concern that should be brought to the attention of their family physician.
4. Difficulty with recall: Is an aging loved one having trouble recalling recent events or important conversations that you’ve had? You should be especially concerned if they still don’t recall things after you provide cues. For example, on a cold day you tell your mother you will be there to pick her up for a doctor’s appointment and that she needs to dress warm. When you arrive at her house and not only isn’t she ready, she doesn’t even remember having spoken with you earlier in the day.
Before you panic, know that there are other medical conditions that are treatable that can look like Alzheimer’s disease.
7 Common Medical Conditions That Mimic Alzheimer’s Disease
Before a physician settles on a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, they will likely perform tests to rule out other potential causes. Some of the more common ones include:
1. Medication Side Effects: If an aging parent recently changed or started a new type of medicine, it might be the culprit. Confusion can be a side effect of some medications. An interaction between medications might also be to blame, especially if they are mixed with over-the-counter medicines that a physician isn’t aware a patient is taking. Taking a wrong dosage can also cause a senior to feel disoriented and confused. Keeping a comprehensive list of prescription and over-the-counter medicines that a parent is taking and reviewing it with both their pharmacist and physician any time something changes is important.
2. Vitamin B Deficiency: A common cause of Alzheimer’s-like symptoms is a Vitamin B deficiency. Seniors suffer from this more than others because they sometimes have trouble preparing nutritionally balanced meals for a variety of reasons ranging from arthritis to a lack of transportation to get to the grocery store. If an older adult doesn’t maintain a diet high in B-12 rich foods such as lean red meat, fish, eggs, enriched cereals, and low-fat dairy products, a B-12 deficiency might be the problem and not Alzheimer’s.
3. Thyroid Disease: Problems with thyroid function can also mimic dementia. If the thyroid is overactive (hyperthyroidism) or underactive (hypothyroidism) it can lead to memory problems and other dementia-like symptoms. These can typically be easy to diagnose and treat.
4. Depression: Forgetfulness and an inability to concentrate are often associated with Alzheimer’s, but they can also be symptoms of depression. Pseudodementia, as it is referred to, is when a person’s depressed mood creates symptoms that are mistaken for dementia.
5. Dehydration: Most of us think of heat and humidity as the primary causes of dehydration. Seniors are actually at risk for dehydration all year long. As we age, our bodies often lose the ability to recognize thirst which can lead to dehydration. Physical impairments also make it more difficult for older loved ones to get to the kitchen for water as frequently as they need to stay hydrated.
6. Urinary Tract Infection (UTI): Confusion, trouble completing tasks and an abrupt change in behavior can also be the symptoms of a urinary tract infection in older adults. Seniors with immune systems that are already weakened from other illnesses are especially at risk.
7. Blood Sugar Imbalance: If blood sugar is too high or too low or diabetes isn’t controlled, the result can be a behavior that looks like dementia. Confusion and disorientation are two common such symptoms.
If these signs and symptoms raise some red flags for you, the best person to share your concerns for your senior loved one with is their primary care physician. They will schedule a physical exam to determine if it is a condition that mimics Alzheimer’s or if they need to be referred to a neurologist for additional testing and follow-up.
Brain Boosters for Caregivers
Finally, we know a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s often leaves adult children and caregivers wondering if their own risk for developing the disease is now higher. Watching someone you love struggle with such a disabling disease makes that concern easy to understand. While a cause and cure for Alzheimer’s remains elusive, there are brain booster activities you can do to try to help delay or prevent the development of the disease. Click here to read more about brain health.