Dementia is a collection of symptoms that can occur due to a variety of possible diseases. If you or your loved one is experiencing memory problems, don’t immediately conclude that it’s dementia. A person needs to have at least two types of impairment that significantly interfere with everyday life to receive a dementia diagnosis.
Not all dementia is Alzheimer’s
While little memory slips are normal, when forgetfulness begins to interfere with everyday life, or symptoms pop up suddenly, it might be time to see a doctor. There are ways to improve your recall. But dementia is shockingly common: It affects more than 47.5 million people worldwide. Dementia is not a disease in itself—it’s a blanket term (like cancer) for a variety of different types of mental impairments.
Most dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia (mini strokes), Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is irreversible: treatable, but not curable. But research suggests that as many as one in five cases of dementia are triggered by treatable conditions.
“Dementia as a diagnosis is not the same as exhibiting a cognitive impairment that mimics dementia,” explains Kevin James, founder of Dementia.org. “Sometimes certain conditions can cause people to exhibit dementia-like symptoms, and in many cases, these conditions can be treated and the symptoms can be reversed.”
Urinary tract infections
The typical symptoms of a urinary tract infection (UTI)—fever, pain, and urgency—are often missed in older people and if left untreated can cause symptoms that mimic dementia such as delirium, confusion, agitation, and hallucinations. “In nursing homes and hospitals, UTIs are rampant and a lot of patients are thought to have a sudden onset of dementia,” says James.
“If they are given an antibiotic, the symptoms will go away, but unless you are a nurse or medical professional, you will not necessarily know this, and if left untreated, you could have an infection.” Fever along with the other side effects people experience when their bodies are fighting off infections, such as Lyme disease, meningitis, and encephalitis, can also cause dementia-like symptoms.
A number of recent studies have shown a link between hearing loss and dementia, and some experts believe that interventions such as professionally fitted hearing aids could potentially delay or prevent dementia. One study found that hearing loss is associated with accelerated cognitive decline in older adults and that seniors with hearing loss are more likely to develop dementia over time than those who retain their hearing, while another study revealed a link between hearing loss and accelerated brain tissue loss.
“You ‘hear’ with your brain, not your ears,” says Carole Rogin, President of the Hearing Industries Association (HIA). Unaddressed hearing loss not only affects the listener’s ability to perceive the sound accurately, but it also affects higher-level cognitive function, explains Rogin.