Is It Dementia, or a Treatable Condition?

By Dr. Catherine Madison, Neurologist, Seniors At Home

Your loved one is starting to show signs of memory loss or confusion. They’re having trouble concentrating and seem to get frustrated easily. It’s natural to wonder: Could they be in the early stages of dementia?

Depressed Senior Woman

With society’s increasing awareness around Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, the medical community has shifted toward earlier evaluation of cognitive changes. This has led to a growing recognition of conditions that resemble dementia, but whose effects can be reversed with treatment.

The list of treatable conditions that might resemble dementia is long, and includes concerns ranging from sleep challenges and depression to medications, hormonal imbalances, nutritional deficiencies, or structural changes in the brain. Here are some of the most common conditions to look out for:

Depression is commonly mistaken for dementia. The relationship between depression and dementia is complex; unfortunately, depression can be an early sign of a dementia. But medication and counseling or therapy can almost always improve symptoms of depression, leading to a better quality of life.

Deep sleep is vital to brain health. If you are not sleeping soundly at night, your brain cannot function at full capacity during the day. The frequency of Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) increases with age and body mass. In addition to disrupting sleep, OSA is known to increase the risk of hypertension, diabetes, stroke, obesity, depression, and perhaps dementia. If your loved one is having sleep issues, it’s a good idea to pursue a sleep study and treatment.

Both prescription and over the counter (OTC) medications can contribute to confusion. Avoid OTC sleep aids and muscle relaxants unless they’re recommended by your doctor. Also try to stay away from medicines designed to reduce anxiety (“benzos”) and pills that affect bowel and bladder function. In all cases, discussing potential benefits and risks of a specific medicine with your doctor is the best course of action.

Severe illness or infection can cause your loved one’s head to feel fuzzy. This feeling can also stem from chronic illnesses that affect the kidneys and liver. Make sure your loved one has regular check-ups to monitor for these conditions.

Alcohol use and health have a complicated relationship. Over the years “moderate” alcohol use has been associated with good heart health, but adverse effects are all too common. Alcohol may put you to sleep at night, but it also disrupts the critical deep stage of sleep that allows the brain to consolidate new information from the day and do a general “clean-up”. In general, limiting alcohol to less than one serving a day is a good strategy.

If you are feeling overwhelmed by all the things that could be going on behind the scenes for someone who is cognitively impaired, seek a thorough evaluation. Seniors At Home is here to help. If you or someone you care about needs assistance, please reach out to us at 415-529-5981 or contact us online. Seeking support and understanding helps us—and our loved ones—enjoy a higher quality of life and make the most of our time together.

Seniors At Home is a division of Jewish Family and Children’s Services, a trusted nonprofit institution that has been providing care since 1850. Our services are funded by fees and by donations for those who cannot afford the full cost of care for these critical services.