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A Startling Cause of Misdiagnosed Dementia

Written by OurParents Staff
 about the author
6 minute readLast updated February 11, 2024

One common cause of dementia-like symptoms is side effects from medications. As your loved ones get older, the list of medicines they take for different health problems often grows. But as the list of medicines grows, it can get confusing for seniors to keep track of what each pill is for, when to take it, and the side effects to watch for. This confusion can sometimes lead to wrong illness diagnoses or dementia symptoms caused by the medicines. Learn more about how this mix-up can happen and what you can do to prevent it.

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Can dementia be misdiagnosed?

Yes, caregivers and sometimes even doctors can make an Alzheimer’s misdiagnosis. There are numerous factors that can cause dementia-like symptoms in your loved one, so it’s important to know what can be mistaken for dementia.
The reality is that several conditions have dementia-like symptoms. Some illnesses that mimic Alzheimer’s or dementia include:
  • Delirium
  • Thyroid disorders
  • Vitamin B12 deficiencies
  • Urinary tract infections, pneumonia, and other sicknesses
Like dementia, these conditions can cause memory loss, confusion, and other health problems in older adults.[01]

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What disorder is most often misdiagnosed as dementia?

It can be hard to tell the difference between dementia and depression in older people because they can have similar symptoms.[02] Sometimes, depression and dementia can even cause each other. Both conditions can cause these symptoms:
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Memory loss
  • Withdrawing from social activities
  • Loss of appetite
  • Difficulty sleeping[03]
These overlapping symptoms emphasize the need for careful medical evaluation, especially considering another significant factor: medication side effects.

How medication side effects can be misdiagnosed as dementia

Sometimes, the side effects of certain drugs can seem just like dementia. For example, some medicines for anxiety can make it harder to think clearly or move well. They might cause confusion or memory problems in people who don’t have dementia. This is called pseudodementia.
Medicines like Valium and Xanax, which are commonly prescribed to seniors, have side effects that can be indistinguishable from Alzheimer’s or dementia, including:
  • Short-term memory loss
  • Acting without thinking
  • Hallucinations
Other medications for seniors, like those prescribed for high cholesterol, can also lead to these problems. This includes many kinds of drugs like allergy pills, antibiotics, steroids, seizure medicines, nausea medicines, muscle relaxers, and painkillers.
Even though these medicines are meant to improve your aging loved one’s quality of life, they can sometimes cause confusion or even a dementia misdiagnosis.

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Senior living and medication care plans

Moving into a senior living option, like assisted living, can help your aging loved ones manage their medicines better. Before moving in, seniors usually see a doctor to review all their medicines. This is a good time to check whether all the medicines are still needed. Under a doctor’s care, some seniors can stop taking medicines they no longer need.
Once your loved one moves into assisted living, they get a care plan. This plan includes which medicines they need and why. You and your family can then talk with the care team and doctors to decide the best medical plan moving forward. Often, the goal is to take fewer medicines, especially for seniors with memory problems.
Many assisted living and memory care facilities also use alternative ways to help with anxiety, depression, and feeling upset. These include non-drug-related methods, such as:
  • Purposefully designing communities to make people with memory loss feel comfortable
  • Using therapy to reduce blood pressure, improve mood, and decrease anxiety
  • Encouraging family visits and community involvement

Medication management and healthy senior living

Sometimes, you can’t cut down the number of medicines your loved one takes. This is where assisted living can come into play. Even if the number of medicines stays the same, it’s important to make sure they’re taken the right way. In assisted living facilities, there is a system to ensure everyone gets the right medicine at the right time. This can be especially helpful for older adults who might forget their medicines or have a lot to take. It can stop them from getting mixed up, which could cause them to be misdiagnosed with dementia.
If your loved one is juggling a lot of medicines and you’re worried about them living at home safely, it might be time to talk to a doctor. The doctor can help figure out which medicines are truly necessary.
Alternatively, if your loved one is unable to perform self-management for medication at home and you can’t be there to help, you may want to look at senior living options such as assisted living or memory care communities that can assist with medication management.
If that’s an option you’re considering, our Senior Care Advisors are here to help you find the best place for your loved one to live that will help them manage their medicines safely. Just reach out to us, and we’ll guide you through the options, all at no cost to your family.


  1. Harvard Health Publishing. (2022, April 5). Is it dementia or depression?

  2. Alzheimer’s Association. (2023). Depression.

Meet the Author
OurParents Staff

The information contained in this article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute medical, legal or financial advice or create a professional relationship between A Place for Mom (of which OurParents is a trademark) and the reader.  Always seek the advice of your health care provider, attorney or financial advisor with respect to any particular matter and do not act or refrain from acting on the basis of anything you have read on this site.  Links to third-party websites are only for the convenience of the reader; A Place for Mom does not recommend or endorse the contents of the third-party sites.