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What Other Conditions Can Cause Dementia?
Doctors have identified many other conditions that can cause dementia or dementia-like symptoms. Many of these conditions are reversible with appropriate treatment.
Reactions to medications. Medications can sometimes lead to reactions or side effects that mimic dementia. These dementia-like effects can occur in reaction to just one drug or they can result from drug interactions. They may have a rapid onset or they may develop slowly over time.
Metabolic problems and endocrine abnormalities. Thyroid problems can lead to apathy, depression, or dementia. Hypoglycemia, a condition in which there is not enough sugar in the bloodstream, can cause confusion or personality changes. Too little or too much sodium or calcium can also trigger mental changes. Some people have an impaired ability to absorb vitamin B12, which creates a condition called pernicious anemia that can cause personality changes, irritability, or depression. Tests can determine if any of these problems are present.
Nutritional deficiencies. Deficiencies of thiamine (vitamin B1) frequently result from chronic alcoholism and can seriously impair mental abilities, in particular memories of recent events. Severe deficiency of vitamin B3 can cause a neurological illness called pellagra that may include dementia. Deficiencies of vitamin B12 also have been linked to dementia in some cases. Dehydration can also cause mental impairment that can resemble dementia.
Infections. Many infections can cause neurological symptoms, including confusion or delirium, due to fever or other side effects of the body's fight to overcome the infection. Meningitis and encephalitis, which are infections of the brain or the membrane that covers it, can cause confusion, sudden severe dementia, withdrawal from social interaction, impaired judgment, or memory loss. Untreated syphilis also can damage the nervous system and cause dementia. In rare cases, Lyme disease can cause memory or thinking difficulties. People in the advanced stages of AIDS also may develop a form of dementia (see HIV-associated dementia, page 14). People with compromised immune systems, such as those with leukemia and AIDS, may also develop an infection called progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML). PML is caused by a common human polyomavirus, JC virus, and leads to damage or destruction of the myelin sheath that covers nerve cells. PML can lead to confusion, difficulty with thinking or speaking, and other mental problems.
Subdural hematomas. Subdural hematomas, or bleeding between the brain's surface and its outer covering (the dura), can cause dementia-like symptoms and changes in mental function.
Poisoning. Exposure to lead, other heavy metals, or other poisonous substances can lead to symptoms of dementia. These symptoms may or may not resolve after treatment, depending on how badly the brain is damaged. People who have abused substances such as alcohol and recreational drugs sometimes display signs of dementia even after the substance abuse has ended. This condition is known as substance-induced persisting dementia.
Brain tumors. In rare cases, people with brain tumors may develop dementia because of damage to their brains. Symptoms may include changes in personality, psychotic episodes, or problems with speech, language, thinking, and memory.
Anoxia. Anoxia and a related term, hypoxia, are often used interchangeably to describe a state in which there is a diminished supply of oxygen to an organ's tissues. Anoxia may be caused by many different problems, including heart attack, heart surgery, severe asthma, smoke or carbon monoxide inhalation, high-altitude exposure, strangulation, or an overdose of anesthesia. In severe cases of anoxia the patient may be in a stupor or a coma for periods ranging from hours to days, weeks, or months. Recovery depends on the severity of the oxygen deprivation. As recovery proceeds, a variety of psychological and neurological abnormalities, such as dementia or psychosis, may occur. The person also may experience confusion, personality changes, hallucinations, or memory loss.
Heart and lung problems. The brain requires a high level of oxygen in order to carry out its normal functions. Therefore, problems such as chronic lung disease or heart problems that prevent the brain from receiving adequate oxygen can starve brain cells and lead to the symptoms of dementia.
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