What If Grandpa Doesn’t Really Have Alzheimer’s? | Parade.com

Jimmy Nowell (left) was told he had Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s before finally being diagnosed with NPH.

By Joanne Chen

There’s a condition that often masquerades as dementia, with one difference—it’s treatable.

Jimmy Nowell of Clifton, Tex., had always been a top-notch salesman. Locals in search of auto parts knew he could get them exactly what they needed. But in 2000, when he was 59, Nowell’s speech, along with his walking, started slowing. Sometimes he needed a cane. Later, he became disorganized, losing his train of thought or turning on the computer and freezing, not knowing what to do. In 2005, he lost his job as a result of his behavior. Still, Nowell and his wife, Ann, just chalked up the symptoms to old age.

Then in 2007, Nowell started blanking on Ann’s name. In a panic, she dragged her husband to doctor after doctor, but no one could agree on a diagnosis. One specialist thought Nowell had Parkinson’s disease; another said it was Alzheimer’s. Finally, in 2009, Nowell’s condition was correctly identified when a neurologist took an MRI and compared it to a baseline image taken a few years earlier: Nowell had normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH), a condition that occurs when the clear fluid surrounding the brain fails to be reabsorbed, eventually leading to problems with memory, as well as bladder control and walking (one of the distinguishing signs is a disturbed gait). The symptoms creep up slowly at first—and when the condition is brought to a doctor’s attention, it’s often misdiagnosed.

“About 30 percent of my [NPH] patients were told they had Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s,” says Mark Luciano, M.D., neurosurgery director at Cleveland Clinic. “Sometimes they were told they were just getting old.” As a result, it’s tough to know how prevalent NPH truly is, but the Hydrocephalus Association estimates that at least 350,000 Americans—and 5 percent of people with dementia—have the condition. A 2005 Virginia Commonwealth University paper estimated that 9 percent of patients in assisted-living facilities may have NPH.

The good news is that unlike the vast majority of conditions that cause dementia, NPH can be treated by surgery to reduce pressure in the brain. The procedure is successful in 85 to 90 percent of NPH patients, as long as they have no complicating factors, like a spinal condition, says Michael Williams, M.D., director of Sinai Hospital’s Adult Hydrocephalus Center in Baltimore.

For Nowell, news of a cure was welcome, but also frightening: A dime-size hole would be drilled into his skull and a shunt implanted to drain the excess fluid. Nevertheless, the Nowells decided to go forward with the surgery. Upon waking, Jimmy was able to walk without a cane for the first time in years. When his wife stepped off the elevator, he called out her name without hesitation, and she cried with joy. Jimmy was back.

To learn more about Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus, visit lifenph.com.

~ by Butch on November 24, 2012.

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