Alzheimer's Not Always Correct Diagnosis

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • Recently a member of our Alzheimer’s community shared her concern about her mother who, at the age of 55, had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The daughter wasn’t sure about this diagnosis, stating that while her mom was forgetting where she put her keys, she wasn’t having difficulty with her daily routine, was displaying sound judgment and didn’t have a loss of initiative or changes of behavior.

    I can understand her concern since I recently saw my father become befuddled, which is uncharacteristic for him. He left sentences hanging in the air without completing them, forgot that he had already told me things, and just seemed totally off. I was mentally wondering, “Is Dad going to follow in Mom’s footsteps and be diagnosed with dementia?”

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    In Dad’s case, the answer was no. It turns out that his memory issues were actually caused by a mistaken drug overdose. He wears a Fentanyl patch to ease his chronic back pain. One day he put a new patch on but forgot to take off the old one. Once we figured out that that was the issue and he took off the old patch, his memory, actions and behaviors were back to normal.

    That lesson helped me learn that memory loss may not be due to Alzheimer’s disease; instead a variety of other factors may be behind someone’s memory loss. For instance, the Wall Street Journal featured a story recently entitled, “Detective Work: The False Alzheimer’s Diagnosis.” This article noted that autopsies of approximately 1,000 people from 2005-2010 at 30 top National Institute on Aging-supported centers found that up to 30 percent of those people had been misdiagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and actually had had another condition. The Wall Street  Journal article pointed out that more than 100 conditions ranging from vitamin and hormone deficiencies to rare brain disorders can cause memory and behavior issues that look like Alzheimer’s disease.

    Another story in USA Today described two case studies that show how easily a faulty diagnosis can be made. In the first, a man in his late 70s had bouts of confusion and agitation – common symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease – that in reality were caused by illness and cellulitis. Another case study involved an 87-year-old woman who had sudden confusion. Her issues were not caused by Alzheimer’s, but by depression.

    , a service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine states that memory loss can be caused by alcohol, illicit drugs, not enough oxygen to the brain, brain growths cause by tumors or infection, brain infections such as Lyme disease, brain surgery, cancer treatments, certain types of seizures, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, dissociative disorder, electroconvulsive therapy if it’s been used long-term, encephalitis, epilepsy, head trauma or injury, heart bypass surgery, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, multiple sclerosis, long-term alcohol abuse, migraine headaches, mild head injury or concussion, nutritional problems such as low vitamin B12, permanent damage or injuries to the brain, transient global amnesia, and transient ischemic attack (TIA).

  • In addition, the Wall Street Journal pointed more than 100 drugs have side effects that may cause Alzheimer’s-like symptoms in some people. These drugs include: antihistamines, sleeping pills, painkillers, anti-anxiety drugs, anti-psychotic drugs, cholesterol drugs, older antidepressants, incontinence drugs, blood pressure medications, tranquilizers, heart drugs, stomach drugs, and Parkinson’s drugs.

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    And there’s one more possibility that I suggested to the reader concerning her mother – menopause.  I recently wrote a sharepost for HealthCentral’s menopause site about this discussion. In it, I pointed to one recent study found that women who were nearing menopause who described having memory problems did worse on tests for attention, working memory, encoding a memory and verbal skills. They also had more symptoms of depression, anxiety and sleep issues than women who didn’t describe themselves as having memory problems. And the good news is that once women make this reproductive transition, their brain fog often lifts.

    So the moral of this story is that if you or a loved one is having memory problems, go see a doctor and get thoroughly assessed. Yes, it could be Alzheimer’s – or the memory issues may be caused by some reason that is quite treatable.

    Primary Sources for This Sharepost:

    Beck, M. (2012). Detective work: The false Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Wall Street Journal.

    Erb, R. (2012). Diagnosis of Alzheimer’s isn’t always accurate. USA Today.

    MedlinePlus. (2012). Memory loss. U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Published On: September 18, 2012