If you or a loved one has experienced problems with memory or thinking, you might jump to the conclusion that Alzheimer's disease is the cause.
In its early stages, Alzheimer's manifests as mild cognitive impairment, marked by forgetfulness and difficulty doing or remembering things that seem like they should be simple.
People may forget names, be confused or have difficulty remembering how to do routine tasks. Given the rapidly increasing rate of the Alzheimer's epidemic in this country, it's natural for people to think that Alzheimer's is the root cause of most mild cognitive impairment. However, there are many other causes of mild cognitive impairment, and a great number of them are reversible (unlike Alzheimer's, which can currently be slowed by treatments, but not halted).
Conditions that can mimic the mild cognitive impairment of early Alzheimer's disease include thyroid dysfunction, vitamin B12 deficiency, depression, silent stroke, subdural hematoma, medication side effects, congestive heart failure, seizures and Parkinson's disease. All of these diseases may cause impairment in thinking, memory, or general "fuzzy" feelings in the brain.
Many of these conditions, such as thyroid dysfunction or vitamin deficiency, may be easy to treat and reverse via medication or supplements. Others may require further evaluation, and appropriate treatment via other means. Although some of them, like Parkinson's disease, are not curable, they are all treatable, and none of them are likely to respond to treatments usually reserved for Alzheimer's disease. Some conditions, like stroke or heart failure, can be deadly if they are overlooked in favor of jumping to an Alzheimer's diagnosis.
It's also possible for the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease to appear in cases of hippocampal sclerosis — a cerebrovascular disease affecting many people in advanced age. Although the memory symptoms may appear nearly identical, hippocampal sclerosis and cerebrovascular disease have entirely different causes than Alzheimer's. The treatment for one will not work for the other.
Because it's possible that mild cognitive impairment may be caused by any one of a number of non-Alzheimer'sconditions, it's important to receive thorough medical workups on a regular basis, as well as any time memory problems appear. To evaluate your cognitive abilities and potential reasons for any cognitive impairment, the best thing to do is call your health care provider to schedule a complete check-up.
If you suspect that you or a loved one is experiencing memory problems due to any cause, memory screenings are available from the UK Sanders-Brown Center on Aging. Once a memory problem is detected, a patient can pursue a thorough examination to rule out any reversible or treatable causes. To learn more or to schedule a memory screening, contact the Sanders-Brown Clinic at (859) 323-5550, or visit UKY.Edu/coa/.
Gregory Jicha is the McCowan Endowed Chair in Alzheimer's Disease at the UK Sanders-Brown Center on AgingGregory Jicha is the McCowan Endowed Chair in Alzheimer's Disease at the UK Sanders-Brown Center on Aging