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Cognitive Changes are Not Always Dementia

If you or your loved one is experiencing memory or cognitive changes, it may be something else, which may be treatable. There are several treatable diseases that mimic the symptoms of dementia.  According to the National Institute of Health 13% of all dementia disorders are potentially reversible. So, if you notice your loved one acting strangely, it’s essential that they see a doctor as soon as you see changes. The changes you notice may be caused by something that is relatively simple to treat.


Here are 8 common health conditions that can cause similar cognitive changes in seniors.

  1. Urinary Tract Infection: UTIs can cause sudden confusion in older people. If the person has a sudden and unexplained change in their behavior, such as increased confusion, agitation, or withdrawal, this may be a result of a UTI. Many times older people do not even know they have a UTI, as symptoms may not be present. Older adults tend to drink less fluids and this can increase their risk of developing a UTI.  Your doctor can run a urine test to see if this may be the cause of the changes in behavior.
  2. Dehydration: As people age, their sense of thirst can sometimes decrease or seemingly go away. This doesn’t mean they don’t need water; it means they don’t feel thirsty as often, which causes them to drink less water than they need and can lead to dehydration. Kidney problems may also lead to dehydration.  As bodies age, the kidneys can stop processing fluids efficiently, which can lead to more trips to the bathroom and fluid loss. Many times, to avoid frequent trips to the bathroom, older adults decrease their fluid intake.  Medications may also be another factor.  Many seniors take several medications and may not be aware of dehydration as a side effect.  Some of the common signs of dehydration are dizziness and confusion which may mimic dementia. Dehydration also can lead to more significant health issues, so drinking fluids is vitally important especially for seniors.  If you suspect you or someone you care for is dehydrated, speaking with your doctor is critical.
  3. Thyroid Disease: The thyroid makes hormones that keeps the body running smoothly. Hypothyroidism (too little hormone) is common in adults and is frequently associated with cognitive issues, such as increased forgetfulness, mental slowing and “brain fog”. Too little or too much hormone can cause dementia like symptoms. A primary care doctor can run a simple blood test to check thyroid levels.
  4. Diabetes: According to the American Diabetes Association, 25% of adults over 60 have diabetes. Diabetes that has not been diagnosed could cause memory problems, confusion, and poor concentration.   If blood sugar is too high or goes too low that can cause increased confusion and is a risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s Diesase according to the National Council on Aging.  Ask your doctor to check for diabetes.
  5. Alcohol Abuse: Over time, heavy drinking destroys brain cells that are critical for memory, decision making, balance, and thinking. The long term effects of alcohol can be devastating. If you or a loved one has a problem with alcohol, this might be causing cognitive issues, speak with your doctor about treatment options.
  6. Heart and Lung conditions: There is a clear link between lowered blood flow and a variety of issues related to the brain, including Dementia.  Your heart health can impact your memory.  In one study, heart problems nearly doubled the risk of mild cognitive impairment.  If the heart or lungs are not working properly, they may not be supplying the brain with enough oxygen. This can cause decreases in alertness, memory, and executive functioning. Cardiovascular health is essential to overall health of the brain.  Seeking the proper treatment quickly can prevent or delay symptoms caused by lack of blood or oxygen to the brain. And people with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease are about twice as likely to develop mild cognitive impairment — and chances are it will include memory loss.
  7. Liver or Kidney Disease: A damaged liver can’t clear toxins from the blood as well as a healthy liver can. These toxins can then build up in the brain and cause mental confusion and difficulty concentrating.  A common symptom of kidney failure is delirium. This is a mental state that’s marked by confusion and restlessness. It develops because the toxins that are accumulating are affecting the brain. Toxic metabolic waste can build up in the blood and brain if the liver or kidneys are not functioning properly. This can cause cognitive changes. Your doctor can test the functioning of your kidneys and liver with a simple blood test.
  8. Tumors: Many areas of the brain are involved in storing and recalling memories.  Depending on the location of a tumor, people with a brain tumor may forget recent or past memories or have difficulty with speech.  Brain tumors can present with symptoms of confusion. They can interfere with the brain’s functioning and can also result in personality changes.  If you notice changes in behavior or cognition, seek medical advise.


The bottom line is that cognitive changes in older adults are not always Dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease.  If you notice cognitive changes in your loved one don’t wait, have them assessed by their doctor.  It may be something that is very treatable!


Liz Cornish is a Physical Therapist, Certified Dementia Practitioner and Dementia Care Specialist, Senior Care Consultant, and owner of New Season In Life, LLC located at 70 Deer Run, Plantsville, CT 06479.  Connect at 860-841-9504 or