Dementia “Fakers”: 8 Fixable Problems That Can Cause Memory Problems

If anyone advertises that they “cured” dementia, they are WRONG. If the person claiming to have cured Alzheimer’s Disease or some other dementia is a healthcare provider, run. This person should know better, and if they do not, you do not want to be trusting your care to them. If the person claiming is friend or family caregiver, they mean well but were fooled by one of the fakers–other health or substances that can cause REVERSIBLE memory loss.

Here are some culprits that can cause memory problems and are sometimes responsible for an incorrect diagnosis of dementia, especially in older adults:

  1. Depression. Persons with depression can have problems with memory retrieval and completing activities that require thinking. There is some controversy, though. If the memory problems are mild then treatment with an appropriate medication may improve memory performance. On the other hand, there is some emerging evidence that people whose brains are starting to change due to dementia may be more sensitive to becoming depressed. That is, the depression is an early-warning sign that neurons are dying (neurodegeneration); the depression is really “unmasking” the dementia.
  2. Low oxygen levels (from sleep apnea, lung problems, or anemia). Neurons, or brain cells, need oxygen to function. If there is not enough oxygen getting to the brain because of sleep apnea, not enough red blood cells to carry the oxygen (anemia) or lung disease, you will see more confusion and memory problems.
  3. Poor blood flow to the brain. If blood is not getting to the neurons, neither is oxygen (see above). Poor blood flow can be causes by a variety of medical problems (low blood pressure, abnormally low heart rate, or unusual heart rhythms [atrial fibrillation]).
  4. Medications. Some medications change the chemistry in the brain. Brain cells use certain chemicals, like acetylcholine, to make and hold memories. Medicines that interfere with acetylcholine levels can create temporary memory loss. Other medications, like dapsone, can interfere with oxygen getting to the brain.  
  5. Thyroid problems. The thyroid gland, located in your neck, is the thermostat of your body. If the gland is not running up to speed, everything in your body slows down–including your thinking. People with low levels of thyroid hormone may also gain weight and be very sensitive to the cold. If the thyroid levels drop dangerously low, the person can go into a coma.
  6. Artificial sweeteners. This is very controversial right now. There are links between certain artificial sweeteners, like aspartame, and headaches or migraines. Some people are just more sensitive to artificial sweeteners than others. I have a family history of sensitivity to artificial sweeteners, so I stopped using them.
  7. Liver problems. The liver is responsible for breaking down medications and foods. If the liver is not working properly, some toxic substances stay in the body and tiredness and mental confusion can happen. There are usually other signs first, like a swollen abdomen, dark urine, light-colored stools, and lack of appetite.
  8. Delirium. This is a sudden-onset of confusion that usually occurs during severe illness or hospitalization. It can get better and worse, meaning it fluctuates, over the course of several hours. Once the illness is addressed and the person’s health becomes better, the delirium USUALLY clears. It can take up to 3 months for some people. Based on current research studies, delirium may be another “warning” sign that the person is already have neurodegenerative brain changes consistent with Alzheimer’s Disease or one of the other dementias. In other words, the delirium is “unmasking” the dementia.

True story: I was working as a nurse practitioner in a long-term care facility. I admitted an elderly woman with a diagnosis of dementia. After taking her off several medications and addressing some other health issues over a 3-month period, I noticed that she became much more alert and began performing better on the memory tests. To this day, her family swears I “cured” her of Alzheimer’s Disease. I did not. I just fixed some of the “pretenders.”

Bottom line: If you or someone you know is having problems with thinking and/or memory, the first place to start is the primary care provider. He or she should provide a thorough examination, check blood oxygen levels, and examine laboratory results. Depending on the results, the next step may be a neurology appointment.

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