7 Treatable Health Conditions with Symptoms Similar to Dementia

symptoms similar to dementia

Don’t assume strange behavior is caused by dementia

If your older adult’s behavior changes, it’s normal to be worried. With Alzheimer’s and dementia all over the news, it’s natural to think that they might have a cognitive or memory issue.

Before you make any assumptions, it’s important to find the real cause of the problem. There are many treatable medical conditions that cause dementia-like symptoms. If symptoms start suddenly, that’s a sign it’s probably not dementia. Alzheimer’s and dementia progress gradually over years.

We found 7 common health conditions that can cause alarming cognitive changes. Knowing about these conditions helps you advocate with the doctor so your older adult can get proper treatment.



7 health conditions with symptoms similar to dementia

These 7 health conditions often cause symptoms similar to dementia in older adults. Once these conditions are diagnosed and properly treated, the troubling symptoms are usually eliminated.

1. Urinary tract infection (UTI)
Seniors are the most likely group of people to develop a urinary tract infection (UTI), something easily treated with antibiotics. They’re also the least likely to have typical symptoms like pain during urination, fever, or a frequent urge to go.

Instead, UTI symptoms often show up as a sudden change in behavior. Someone who suddenly can’t remember a significant event from last week might have a UTI.

Other signs of an infection include:

  • Falls
  • Recent incontinence
  • Loss of appetite
  • Agitation
  • Restlessness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • Becoming unusually sleepy or withdrawn

2. Medication side effects
Medications called anticholinergics are commonly used by older adults (pronounced anti-col-in-er-jik; click to hear). These drugs and their side effects can cause dementia-like symptoms in people without previous cognitive issues.

Anticholinergic drugs block brain chemicals used for learning, memory, and muscle functions. Older adults already have less of these key brain chemicals because our bodies produce less as we age. Then, blocking them with drugs makes it even harder for the brain to function properly.

Ask the doctor to do a complete review of all medications and supplements. DO NOT start, stop, or change dosage for any medications without first talking with the doctor.

3. Hospitalization and anesthesia
Being hospitalized or undergoing surgery with anesthesia can cause older adults to develop delirium. People with delirium can have terrifying hallucinations or delusions. Some get agitated and combative and others are sleepy and can’t pay attention.

Dementia develops slowly, but delirium starts suddenly. It can be triggered by treatments that older adults are especially sensitive to, like large doses of anti-anxiety drugs and narcotics. Other times it’s caused by noisy, brightly lit environments where sleep is interrupted and staff keeps changing — in other words, a typical hospital room.

It’s important to know about delirium because in older patients, it’s often misdiagnosed as dementia. If that happens, they won’t get the right treatment and the symptoms won’t go away.

4. Head trauma
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 out of 3 people age 65+ falls each year. After age 80, that increases to a 1 in 2 chance of falling.

These falls could seem minor, but bumps to the head can cause significant cognitive problems. If a subdural hematoma forms (a bleed inside the skull), it can interfere with cognitive function.

If your senior has fallen recently and is now behaving very strangely, they should be checked by a doctor ASAP.

5. Normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH)
Normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH) happens when spinal fluid builds up in the brain, causing swelling and pressure that affects cognitive function. If it isn’t treated, this fluid buildup can damage the brain. But once the fluid is drained away, most people return to their normal cognitive abilities.

NPH primarily affects seniors. In most cases, it happens without an obvious cause. It can also be caused by head trauma, brain hemorrhage, or meningitis. In addition to developing dementia-like symptoms, people with NPH could lose bladder control or walk like their feet were stuck to the floor.

If the doctor suspects NPH, a specialist should be consulted as soon as possible. The sooner it’s treated, the more likely your older adult will return to full cognitive function.

6. Depression
Older adults are more vulnerable to depression, which affects 1 in 10 people over 65 years of age. This can cause confusion, fatigue, and even memory problems. To family, this might look like symptoms of dementia.

Depression isn’t something they can just snap out of, but it can be treated successfully with medication, regular exercise, or cognitive therapy and stress-reduction techniques like meditation, yoga, or prayer.

7. Vitamin deficiency
Vitamin deficiencies can cause symptoms similar to dementia, especially Vitamin B12 deficiency. This can happen because older people tend to absorb vitamins less efficiently.

A Vitamin B12 deficiency can cause cognitive issues, even if the deficiency isn’t enough to cause anemia. Other B vitamin deficiencies could also cause dementia-like symptoms, especially if the senior drinks a lot of alcohol or if they’re not eating nutritiously.

With a thorough exam and tests, doctors should be able to detect significant vitamin deficiencies and provide the proper treatment.



Bottom line

If your older adult suddenly starts behaving strangely, take them to the doctor to get checked out right away. Don’t assume that it’s Alzheimer’s or dementia and that they don’t need to see a doctor because there’s no cure.

Their symptoms could be caused be a reversible health condition. Getting the right treatment as soon as possible improves quality of life for seniors and caregivers.


Next Step  Find out about 8 additional health conditions that also cause dementia-like symptoms


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By DailyCaring Editorial Team
Image: Party Times Blog


  • Reply April 11, 2017

    Maude Findlay

    Thanks for this article!

    I know dementia (especially Alzheimer’s) is very common, but not every case of confusion and memory loss in seniors is caused by it. It’s easy to get freaked out by researching this topic online when someone you love has mood/memory changes. Hoping and praying that my mom’s issues are caused by a reversible condition like the ones listed here.

    • Reply April 11, 2017


      I’m so glad this is helpful! There’s so much focus on Alzheimer’s and dementia it can be easy to forget that there can be other causes for those types of symptoms.

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