Jan 31, 2016

The Alzheimer’s That Wasn’t Alzheimer’s

Many conditions can mimic Alzheimer’s, dementia and memory loss; and, many of those conditions can be treated and reversed.

Many conditions can mimic Alzheimer’s, dementia and memory loss; and, many of those conditions can be treated and reversed.

If you or a relative or friend are experiencing memory loss you should consult with your physician and get tested.

In my case, I was diagnosed with Alzheimer's only to find out that in fact that I was not suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

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By Marie Marley
Alzheimer's Reading Room

These include vitamin deficiencies (such as folic acid, niacin or vitamins B-1, B-6 or B-12), normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH), severe clinical depression, urinary tract infections, an underactive thyroid, stress, sleep apnea, chronic subdural hematoma, too much calcium in the blood, syphilis that has spread to the brain, delirium, certain viral or bacterial infections, lead and mercury poisoning, schizophrenia, alcoholism, and a reaction to certain drugs – just to name a few.

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Several of these can be treated and some can even be reversed. For this reason it’s very important to have a thorough medical workup when a person is experiencing symptoms of dementia.

The following is a personal case in point. As it turned out that while I was evidencing many of the symptoms of Alzheimer's - I did not have Alzheimer's.

In 2012, I was experiencing many signs of Alzheimer’s. My short-term memory was severely compromised, which was having a significant negative effect on my performance in my stressful job. And my general level of alertness was declining by the day.

Sometimes I had difficulty doing simple word-processing tasks that I knew well how to do. I often had to ask my assistant to step over to my desk to do a cut-and-paste or some other simple task for me. This was embarrassing to say the least. It seemed I had become the classical absent-minded professor.

No one would take me seriously, which was immensely frustrating. I was very worried about the situation and no one would validate my feelings. One of my doctors said it was probably just due to stress and I shouldn’t bother getting a medical workup.

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But as my condition continued declining I finally decided to get the workup anyway. I went first to my family doctor. She ordered several blood tests and recommended that I go to a neuropsychologist for a battery of tests.

I did go and I underwent four hours of pencil and paper tests of memory and cognition. When I went back to get the test results I was devastated when the doctor said I had “symptoms consistent with dementia of the Alzheimer’s type.”

But he also said my symptoms could be due to stress and/or a reaction to some medications I was taking. Finally, he suggested I go to a neurologist for various medical tests.

The neurologist discovered, among other things, that I had severe sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a potentially serious sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts. People with this condition usually snore a lot and feel tired even after a full night's sleep.

In fact, the sleep apnea was so bad that I was getting zero REM sleep. That’s the sleep stage during which we dream. When a person is deprived of REM sleep, psychological disturbances, such as anxiety, irritability, hallucinations, and difficulty concentrating may develop.

I decided to mount an all-out assault on my symptoms. The first thing I did was take an early retirement from my job. It was very stressful and there was really no way to reduce the stress inherent in the position. It didn’t make much sense financially to retire then but I decided to do it anyway. I’d have enough money to get by, even though I’d have to seriously adjust my lifestyle.

The next thing I did was get treatment for the sleep apnea. I now use a CPAP machine and my sleep patterns have returned to normal.

Finally, I worked with another one of my doctors to reduce some of my medications as much as possible.

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Then in 2015 I repeated all of the neuropsychological tests. The improvement was dramatic.

In the first set of tests my IQ had tested at the 55th percentile. The second time it went up to the 93rd percentile. The first time I had scored at the 7th, 8th and 9th percentiles on some of the tests. In 2015 those all went up to the 70th to mid-70th percentiles.

Even the neuropsychologist was amazed at the improvement. And he said I don’t need to come back any more unless I have any concerns.

Again, all this just goes to show how important it is to get a thorough medical workup when an individual has symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Had I not done so I would have continued functioning poorly and I would have been miserable, convinced that I had Alzheimer’s.

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Marie Marley is the award-winning author of the uplifting book, Come Back Early Today: A Memoir of Love, Alzheimer’s and Joy. Her website (ComeBackEarlyToday.com) contains a wealth of information for Alzheimer’s caregivers. She is also the co-author (with Daniel C. Potts, MD, FAAN) of “Finding Joy in Alzheimer’s: New Hope for Caregivers."

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