By: Cat Ebeling, RN, MSN-PHN, co-author of the best-sellers: The Fat Burning Kitchen, The Top 101 Foods that Fight Aging & The Diabetes Fix
If you’ve ever forgotten where you parked your car, lost your keys in your own house, or walked into a room and forgot why you went there, you are not alone. We all have days like that. But often as we get older, forgetfulness tends to cause more than just temporary anxiety. We sometimes jump to the conclusion that we are getting dementia or have Alzheimer’s disease.
Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are words that strike fear into many of us. Growing older, losing our ability to remember, think, reason, speak, or care for ourselves is not the way we want to view our own aging or that of our loved ones.
There are many forms of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s itself does not have a specific test to determine its presence; doctors merely rely on a cluster of symptoms to recognize it. Doctors often diagnose dementia as a generalized disorder that affects the brain causing memory loss, confusion, personality changes, and even physical manifestations.
Other symptoms of dementia of various types include:
• short-term memory loss
• difficulty speaking and communicating
• mood changes
• difficulty completing tasks
• difficulty following a conversation
• loss of sense of direction
• difficulty recognizing loved ones and familiar faces
• difficulties walking or moving around
Dementia is one of the most commons forms of disability and dependency among elderly people. Dementia can have a major impact physically, psychologically, socially, and economically, not only on those with dementia, but also on families, loved ones and caregivers.
Dementia is a syndrome – usually of a chronic or progressive nature – in which there is deterioration the ability to process thought, beyond what might be expected from normal aging. It affects memory, thinking, orientation, comprehension, calculation, learning capacity, language, judgement and even movement.
Since dementia is so common—especially in the elderly, there’s probably a good chance your life has been touched by someone with dementia. However, it’s important to note that dementia is not a necessary part of aging. By taking care of your health, and avoiding processed foods, sugar and starchy carbohydrates and excessive alcohol, you can lessen your chances of getting dementia.
One of the most important things to note is that many health conditions can create similar symptoms to dementia. Don’t let the doctor just diagnose dementia for you or any of your loved ones without checking into the below health issues, which can mimic dementia—and are often reversible.
1. Gluten Reactions
Gluten reactions and celiac disease are reactions to gluten in wheat, rye, and barley. The classic symptoms of gluten sensitivity show up as bloating, diarrhea, weight loss, cramping and nutrient deficiencies. A standardized blood test can check for this immune response and is diagnosed in a small percentage of people.
However, other subtle symptoms of gluten sensitivity include headaches, skin rashes, skin breakouts, brain fog, depression, anxiety, ADHD and even anemia, even if the test for celiac disease is negative.
While the standard gluten sensitivity lab test may turn up negative, one can still have serious physical and mental reactions to gluten and other components in wheat, rye and barley. The standard test for celiac disease, looks for a reaction to ONE specific gliadin, alpha gliadin and tissue transglutaminase, tTG-2. So, a doctor may call a celiac test “negative” for celiac disease even in the presence of bad reactions to other wheat proteins or transglutaminases.
—many with NO obvious GI symptoms at all.
That means that only about 15 percent of people with gluten issues are actually diagnosed.
Celiac disease does major damage to the small intestine and destroys its sensitive lining that absorbs nutrients from food, especially the B vitamins, which have much to do with nerves, the brain and moods.
A well-known neurologist from Mayo Clinic, Keith Josephs, MD made the connection between gluten and dementia when he examined a patient suspected of having a type of dementia called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. While this patient did not have CJD, they did have celiac disease with dementia as a result.
Mayo clinic gastroenterologist and celiac disease expert Joseph Murray, MD, says he was surprised that the link was so strong. “I was not expecting that there would be so many celiac disease patients with cognitive decline,” he said.
In other similar cases, the celiac symptoms and mental decline occurred simultaneously. Many patients have recovered mental function when they followed gluten-free diets. Strict avoidance of wheat and other gluten-containing grains is the main treatment for celiac disease.
The connection between celiac disease and mental deterioration is not fully known but it could be a combination of several factors. One theory is that the immune response to celiac disease attacks the brain.
Gluten can also cause an immune reaction in the gut, breaking down its all-important immune system. When the body’s immune function is low, candida (see below) and other opportunistic organisms will grow out of hand. Another problem with gluten is overall increase in inflammation in the body, which can trigger dementia and brain fog. Strict avoidance of all gluten in all foods will stop triggering the celiac/gluten reaction and can help reverse this condition. Keep in mind it may sometimes take 6 months or more for the body to fully recover from the inflammation and chronic reactions from gluten.
2. Candida Overgrowth
Candida albicans is a common species of a type of fungus that grows naturally in the human gut, mouth, and vagina. This yeast is mostly harmless, but in many people, it can grow out of control, causing a wide range of health issues including thrush (yeast infection in mouth), vaginal yeast infections, bladder infections, toenail fungus, brain fog and confusion.
A new study, which appears in the journal Nature Communications, shows that this fungal infection can also enter the brain, causing inflammation and impairing memory, much like dementia. This fungal infection can also lead to the formation of abnormal structures in the brain, very similar to that of Alzheimer’s disease.
In a research experiment, C.albicans was injected into mice. The fungus penetrated the blood-brain barrier and triggered a type of inflammatory response that created amyloid structures (similar to Alzheimer’s patients) around the yeasts in the brain. Mice with the infection showed reduced memory and confusion. However, when the yeast infection was eliminated, memory and confusion went away.
Yeast overgrowth in the gut can result from a diet high in carbohydrates, sugars, processed foods and gluten. Other things that can cause yeast to grow out of control include:
• Food allergies
• Weakened immune system
• Celiac disease or IBD
Yeast overgrowth also crowds out the beneficial bacteria in the gut, causing an imbalance in healthy gut bacteria. All of this leads to brain fog and confusion.
The candida in the gut actually lives off of sugar and starches, fermenting it to produce energy. Another very common symptom of Candida overgrowth is intense sugar cravings—those are actually the little yeasts in the gut telling their host to ‘feed’ them!
This fermentation process produces chemical byproducts, alcohol and acetaldehyde, which are actually toxic to the body. Here are a few of the ways acetaldehyde impairs cognitive function and causes brain fog:
• Reduces the amount of oxygen carried by red blood cells to your brain.
• Causes a deficiency in vitamin B1, which plays a critical role in brain function.
• Damages nerve cells in a similar way to chronic alcoholism or Alzheimer’s.
The good news is that candida overgrowth can be eliminated by a variety of medications, both natural and pharmaceutical. Pharmaceutical medications include Nystatin which is more gentle to the system, or fluconazole (Diflucan).
Some of the natural solutions to candida overgrowth include oregano extract capsules, pau d’arco tea or capsules, grapefruit seed extract, caprylic acid, curcumin, kombucha tea, probiotics and garlic extract. Keep in mind, symptoms of candida may feel worse as the treatment causes a ‘die-off’ reaction. Dietary changes will necessary to eliminate carbohydrates, alcohol, and all sugars.
Once the candida overgrowth is eliminated, brain fog usually clears, memory improves, and people should feel as sharp as ever.
3. B Vitamin Deficiencies
The B vitamins represent a group of essential dietary nutrients that work together and are absolutely essential for every aspect of brain and nerve function. B vitamins are water soluble and are easily washed out of the system and can also be taken at higher levels without toxicity. In fact, most research on B vitamins shows that they actually should be taken at levels well above the current dietary recommendations.
The B-vitamins, including vitamins B12, B6, B1, B2, niacin (B3) and folate (B9), have been implicated as protective risk factors against cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.
Most diets are lacking in B vitamins in sufficient quantities to supply what is needed. In addition, many people do not metabolize B vitamins well enough to have them do what is necessary to preserve health.
People who possess the MTHFR gene variant (present in 50-70% of population), or who have Inflammatory Bowel Syndrome (IBS), celiac disease, or problems with their gut microbiome may also be susceptible to B vitamin deficiencies, especially B12 and B9 (folate). Vegans cannot get B12 from their diets, and so are often deficient in B12, as well as people who take metformin for diabetes.
Niacin (B3) deficiency is a known cause of pellagra, a disease characterized by symptoms of dementia, diarrhea, and dermatitis that can be resolved through niacin supplementation. The symptoms include psychosis, disorientation, memory loss, and confusion. Niacin deficiency is common in populations that consume large amounts of corn or sorghum, but can occur also as a result of alcoholism or gastrointestinal disease.
Aging people are especially at risk of poor metabolism of B vitamins, especially B12. As people age, the ability to absorb B12 declines. Stomach acids required to break down and absorb vitamins decline with age. And, people who take medication for stomach acid reduction are at very high risk for a B12 deficiency.
B vitamin deficiencies, especially B12, often manifest in brain function problems, or nerve dysfunction, such as numbness and tingling in feet and hands. The body’s inability to correctly absorb B12, a vitamin found in animal products like meat, cheese, eggs and milk, has been linked to neurological disorders.
Depression, dementia and mental impairment are tied to B12 and also to folate deficiencies, especially in the elderly. A new study by The Irish Longitudinal Study on Aging at Trinity College in Dublin has found that an alarming number of older adults over 50 are deficient in both vitamin B12 and folate, another B vitamin. One out of 8 participants were deficient in B12 and one in 7 deficient in folate, with deficiencies increasing with age.
Low B12 is actually associated with brain shrinkage, along with diminished brain function. Low B12 can mimic symptoms of Alzheimer’s or dementia, with confusion and brain fog. Other symptoms associated with B vitamin deficiency include:
• Pins and needs feeling in hands and feet
• Trouble walking (also a sign of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s)
• Fast heart rate
• Shortness of breath
• Sores in mouth or on tongue
• Problems with thinking clearly, loss of memory, brain fog
• Decreased appetite
Excessive use of alcohol can also result in another form of B vitamin-related dementia, called Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, which is caused by severe, long term deficiencies of the B vitamin thiamine.
If caught early enough, B vitamin deficiencies can be reversible, and the proper B vitamin supplements can even slow down the onset of Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.
B vitamins should be taken in higher doses than the recommended daily amount (since they are water soluble and any excess is excreted), and should be in a form that is easily broken down and utilized in the body such as methylcobalamin for B12, and methylfolate for folate. B6 should be taken in the form of Pyridoxal-5-phosphate, or P-5-P or PLP, instead of the more common form of pyridoxine hydrochloride.
Thyroid dysfunction is often associated with cognitive impairment and dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. Hypothyroidism (low thyroid) is a significant cause of reversible cognitive impairment. Hypothyroidism means the thyroid gland is not producing enough active thyroid hormones, either T3 or T4.
Low thyroid levels affect the entire body and also affect brain function and mood. Low thyroid also causes low levels of essential brain chemicals such as dopamine, noradrenaline and adrenaline, which have been associated with poor brain health and issues such as dementia, depression, and even Parkinson’s disease.
Hypothyroidism often occurs in middle age or elderly people with more females than males affected (about 1 male to every 5 females). The gradual progression of hypothyroidism can make it hard to distinguish from primary dementia. As a consequence, when hypothyroidism has been going on for some time, dementia is a normal consequence.
Older adults who have hypothyroidism will have deficits in memory, intelligence, visual perception and even motor skills such as walking. These people may also have anemia, extreme fatigue, intolerance to cold, dry skin, a hoarse voice, weight gain, slow heart rate, and constipation—all things are often viewed as ‘normal’ for an aging person.
Lab work is vital for anyone showing these symptoms, especially an aging person. General hypothyroidism can be tested by a simple TSH test, but this should not be the only test performed. Many people with a low thyroid will have trouble converting T3 to T4, especially if they have poor gut health. It is important to have a full thyroid panel done to show T3, T4 and free and total levels as well. Treatment with thyroid supplementation (especially medication that includes both T3 and T4) can help reverse this health condition.
5. Urinary Tract Infections
Urinary tract infections are fairly common in elderly people and while most of us recognize a UTI by the burning feeling and urgency when we urinate, often the first sign in an elderly person is sudden onset dementia. Even if your loved one hasn’t officially been diagnosed with dementia, you may notice that dementia-like symptoms, such as confusion, come on fairly quickly.
UTI’s result when bacteria, often e.coli bacteria, enters the urethra and travels to the bladder. If left untreated, the bacteria can also move to the kidneys and cause a kidney infection, which becomes even more serious. Women are more susceptible to UTI’s than men; however, people with in-dwelling catheters, diabetes, or a weak immune system may be more at risk—whether male or female.
Women who have passed menopause age are at a higher risk for UTIs because they don’t have as much estrogen in their system. Estrogen actually tends to help prevent UTI’s in younger females.
Because most people who get a UTI complain of painful burning urination, possible fever, or lower back pain, this condition often can go un-diagnosed in older people. Caregivers, family members and loved ones can be alert to this condition and be sure anyone with sudden unusual behavior gets checked for a UTI.
Behavior can include confusion, agitation, withdrawal, fantasy stories, manic episodes, yelling, crying and agitation. Other symptoms include:
• Difficulty concentrating
• Extreme fatigue
• Unable to complete simple tasks they could do before
• Urinary incontinence
• Cloudy or even pink or brown colored urine
• Strong odor to the urine
The most important thing to remember about the link between UTI and dementia is that the behavior change is usually very noticeable, and happens quickly, usually over a period of one to two days. Antibiotics are given to clear up the infection and should be given as soon as possible. Infections that are left untreated can spread to the kidneys and beyond, and can be life-threatening. Once treatment is completed, the dementia should be reversible.
6. Poor Air Quality and Allergies
Did you know that older women who live in areas where air pollution is worse are 92% more likely to develop dementia than those who live in areas with cleaner air, according to a 2017 study. The link was the strongest in women who inherited the APOE4 gene and area more susceptible to Alzheimer’s disease. And, if you look at these results across the general public, that means that air pollution, including high ozone levels, can be responsible for about 21% of dementia cases.
Breathing in tiny particles that float around in dirty air can trigger inflammation throughout the body and brain. Inflammation is one of the triggers that helps push people towards Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
The same thing goes with environmental allergies. Inflammation from environmental allergies like dust, mold and pollen, can create brain fog, which over time can cause chronic forgetfulness, memory issues, and slowed responses, leading to dementia.
Seasonal pollen allergies can cause sneezing, coughing, watery eyes, and a foggy-feeling head, which leads to an inability to concentrate, focus and stay alert. They can also cause irritability, and even depression and anxiety.
Most seasonal allergies occur in the spring, summer and fall, but with the warming climate, many seasonal allergies have been extended into longer periods. People often take over the counter antihistamines for seasonal allergies, but for many people, taking allergy medication can actually contribute to dementia!
shows brain imaging that detects how anti-cholinergic drugs impact the brain. By utilizing MRI and PET scan imaging technology, the researchers were able to show how people taking anti-cholinergic drugs experienced lower brain metabolism and higher brain atrophy. Participants taking the anti-cholinergic drugs also tested worst on memory tests.
Anti-cholinergic drugs include some antihistamines like Benadryl, tricyclic antidepressants, medications to control overactive bladder, and drugs to relieve the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.
When allergy season strikes, there are healthy alternatives to allergy medications. Try essential oils instead to relieve symptoms naturally—without the unhealthy side effects.
7. Mold Toxicity
There are literally thousands of different molds floating around in the air, the soil, in your home, and even in your foods. A few of these molds can be very toxic to humans. One of them is black mold. Mold allergies and mold toxicity, however, are two different things and you do not have to be allergic to mold to react negatively to toxins in the mold.
Toxic mold based illness is actually a very common, but un-diagnosed condition that can show up in many different ways, including serious brain fog, confusion, memory loss and even depression/anxiety. While only about 25% of us are vulnerable to mold reactions, a whole family can be living in the same house, but only one family member will react to mold.
Mold growth happens often in housing and buildings, especially older buildings. Mold gives off toxins which can accumulate in the body and create a variety of health problems. Toxic mold actually gives off volatile toxic vapors that float around in the air causing a chronic inflammatory response.
Mold toxicity can manifest with so many different and diverse symptoms, that it is frequently misdiagnosed. It is likely that some cases of chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, histamine intolerance, irritable bowel, leaky gut, multiple sclerosis and even Lyme syndrome, can be caused or exacerbated from a chronic inflammatory response caused by toxic mold.
Other symptoms include fatigue, joint pain, weakness, clumsiness, headache, blurred vision, memory problems, confusion, disorientation, mood swings, slurring of words and dizziness.
[Note: I, personally have this kind of reaction to some mold in buildings and can quickly become confused, groggy, and disoriented. You don’t have to be elderly to react to mold toxins!]
Some companies specialize in mold testing and mold mitigation. One of the more cost effective and reliable means of testing your home is with mold growth plates which can be purchased online. Laboratory tests can also identify some mold toxins that show up in the urine as well.
The good news is that once a mold toxicity diagnosis is made, this can be a very treatable and reversible condition. Some treatments include using natural binders such as charcoal and clay, which trap the toxins and to remove them from the body. Other natural treatments include taking probiotics such as Saccromyces Boulardi, and anti-fungals such as oregano oil, grapefruit seed extract or nystatin.
Stay Sharp and Help Keep Your Loved Ones Sharp
Medications are also common culprits in mental decline and dementia. As we age, the liver becomes less efficient at metabolizing toxins and drugs, and the body has a harder time getting rid of these potentially harmful products.
As a result, drugs and other toxins tend to accumulate in the body. Elderly people in poor health and those taking several different medications are especially vulnerable. Keep an eye out for these drugs that can cause dementia-like symptoms:
• Parkinson Drugs
• Anti-Anxiety Medications
• Cardiovascular Drugs
More than 50 conditions can cause or mimic the symptoms of dementia, with a small percentage of dementias that are reversible. Staying tuned in to your health and that of your loved ones will help you be aware of any of these reversible conditions, so that you can stop the damage and restore brain health to live a long, healthy and happy life.
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