6 Potentially Reversible Conditions That Can Mimic Dementia

When dementia symptoms appear it’s natural to fear that the person affected has an incurable form of dementia. Rather than reacting with panic, however, it’s far better to try to remain calm and have a specialist make the determination. Many forms of dementia are incurable, of course, but other conditions can present symptoms that resemble those of dementia, but are in fact reversible.

Medications Often the First Suspect

Medications save lives and can be vital to the wellbeing of millions around the world. But all medications have possible side effects. For some people, especially older people, a prescribed medication may help the condition for which it is taken, but it may also have mental side effects. Combinations of several medications heighten this risk. People with dementia symptoms should have all medications checked by their primary physician, and possibly by a neurologist.

Infections Can Cause Mental Symptoms

If fighting an infection, an older person can be affected cognitively to a greater degree than a younger person might be. Urinary tract infections, for example, can wreak havoc with mental clarity. Even if there is no background of infections, a person who is showing cognitive decline needs a thorough physical. This physical should include checking for any level of infection.

Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus (NPH)

Normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH) happens when spinal fluid builds up in the brain, resulting in swelling and pressure that can, if left untreated, damage the brain itself. Surgeons can insert a shunt into the brain that drains off the fluid and many people, once treated, return to normal or close to normal cognitive functioning. Normal pressure hydrocephalus should be addressed as soon as possible, and by an expert rather than a family physician.

Thyroid Problems Can Cause Confusion

The thyroid secretes hormones that affect the whole body. When something goes wrong in this gland people can feel sluggish, confused and worn out. Thyroid problems generally develop slowly, so it’s not always easy to know when the problems began. If you are having vague symptoms that your doctor is having trouble pinning down, he or she may suggest a thyroid test. That’s generally a good call and could possibly uncover your problem.

Vitamin Deficiency

Vitamin deficiencies can cause symptoms similar to dementia, particularly Vitamin B12 deficiency. As people age, they tend to absorb vitamins less efficiently and need supplements. Vitamin B12 deficiency is a relatively common cause of cognitive issues, even if the deficiency isn’t low enough to cause anemia. Other B vitamin deficiencies might be culprits, particularly if the patient is consuming comparatively large amounts of alcohol, or if alcohol is taking the place of nutritious food.


Depression, especially major depressive disorder, can cause confusion, lethargy and even memory problems. Antidepressants that are often prescribed for depression are tricky since different people respond differently to the drugs. Often, several antidepressants need to be tried in order to help the person with the disease, so if depression is the cause of the problem, working with a specialist is a must.

The Takeaway

The upshot is that many health issues can mimic dementia. However, unlike most types of dementia, many of these other health issues are reversible. If the person about whom you are worried is examined by a specialist, and curable types of dementia symptoms are ruled out, it’s still beneficial to have seen the doctor. An early diagnosis of dementia gives the patient optimal time for planning, while frequently helping to heighten the patient's quality of life for a longer period of time than might have been possible without an early diagnosis.

Carol Bradley Bursack
Meet Our Writer
Carol Bradley Bursack

Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. This experience provided her with her foundation upon which she built her reputation as a columnist, author, blogger, and consultant. Carol is as passionate about supporting caregivers work through the diverse challenges in their often confusing role as she is about preserving the dignity of the person needing care. Find out much more about Carol at mindingourelders.com.