This Common Infection Is Often Mistaken for Dementia, Experts Say

Dementia develops when the neurons, or nerve cells, in your brain begin to die or…

Dementia develops when the neurons, or nerve cells, in your brain begin to die or lose connection. Though all of us lose some neurons as we age, people with dementia experience this decline more rapidly, and at greater volume. This can result in a wide range of symptoms that affect cognition and interfere with everyday life. However, not everyone with cognitive symptoms suffers from dementia—even if those symptoms appear stark. Read on to learn which common infection is often confused for dementia, and why prompt treatment is the key to avoiding serious complications.

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Dementia can manifest in a range of different ways that affect one’s ability to think, remember, and reason. According to the National Institute on Aging (NIA), dementia symptoms commonly include memory loss, poor judgment, confusion, problems with communication, disorientation in familiar places, and difficulty completing everyday tasks such as paying bills or running errands.

Many dementia patients also experience personality changes, including reduced interest in the feelings of others, heightened impulsiveness, apathy, and increased paranoia. Some also experience physical changes, including problems with balance, vision, and stiff muscles.

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A senior woman sitting in a chair after feeling dizzy
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Experts say that a urinary tract infection (UTI) can mirror several symptoms of dementia. “UTIs can cause sudden confusion (also known as delirium) in older people and people with dementia. If the person has a sudden and unexplained change in their behavior, such as increased confusion, agitation, or withdrawal, this may be because of a UTI,” explains the Alzheimer’s Society.

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UTIs, which are caused by bacteria entering the urinary system via the urethra, are surprisingly common in the elderly—especially among women. “Over 10 percent of women older than 65 years of age reported having a UTI within the past 12 months. This number increases to almost 30 percent in women over the age of 85 years,” notes a 2013 study published in the journal Aging Health. This can cause confusion and lead to misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis, experts warn.

Senior woman with UTI / pelvic pain
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Knowing the other symptoms of a UTI may help prevent serious complications in a loved one under your care—especially if the symptoms are severe. “The person may not be able to communicate how they feel, therefore it is helpful to be familiar with the symptoms of UTIs and seek medical help to ensure they get the correct treatment,” says the Alzheimer’s Society.

According to the Mayo Clinic, UTI symptoms often include a strong, persistent, or frequent urge to urinate, burning during urination, cloudy or discolored urine, strong-smelling urine, or pelvic pain. Taking antibiotics will relieve symptoms for most people, but speak with a doctor if your symptoms persist after treatment is complete. If you notice any of these symptoms paired with even mild cognitive changes, it’s a good idea to speak with a doctor about your concerns.

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Shot of an unrecognisable senior man taking medication at home
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UTIs are twice as common in people with dementia, studies show, and their consequences have the potential to be more serious. That’s because a UTI can have lasting effects on cognition if left untreated, experts warn. “It’s important to be aware that any infection could speed up the progression of dementia and so all infections should be identified and treated quickly,” advises Alzheimer’s Society.

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However, the organization notes that UTIs can be especially confounding in patients with a known history of dementia, since a sudden bout of delirium or confusion could appear to be a natural part of the disease’s progression. Speak with your doctor to learn more about how to identify signs of a UTI in individuals suffering from dementia.