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A Startling Cause of Misdiagnosed Dementia

Written by Jeff Anderson
 about the author
5 minute readLast updated December 24, 2015

The Kaiser Family Foundation recently reported that nearly 90% of seniors over the age of 65 take one or more prescription medication daily. As people age, the number of prescriptions they routinely take often rises to combat emerging health concerns. As medication regimens become more complex over time, a senior and their family members may be less likely to fully understand the purpose of each pill, when to take them, and which side effects to look out for. Learn more about how this can lead to a misdiagnosis of illness or medication-induced dementia symptoms.

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How Medication Side Effects Can Masquerade as Dementia

Drug interactions and side effects often mimic the symptoms of age-related cognitive disorders. For instance, drugs that affect cognition and mobility, such as anti-anxiety meds, can make dementia symptoms worse — or even create a facade of dementia in people who don’t suffer from the disease, a condition known as pseudodementia.
For instance, many anti-anxiety drugs commonly prescribed to seniors such as Valium and Xanax, have side effects that are indistinguishable from Alzheimer’s or dementia, including:
  • Short-term memory loss
  • Disinhibition
  • Hallucinations
Other medications can also cause pseudodementia, including cholesterol lowering statin drugs like Lipitor, which many seniors take. In fact, any medicine that can cause cognitive impairment could lead to a misdiagnosis of dementia. Classes of drugs including anti-histamines, antibiotics, corticosteroids, anticonvulsants, antiemetics, muscle relaxants and opioid pain killers all carry this risk.
While the right medicine can reverse the course of serious diseases and improve a senior’s quality of life immeasurably, medications also cause problems.

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Senior Living and Medication Care Plans

For many seniors, a move to an assisted living community can help get this medication chaos under control. Most assisted living communities require that residents have a doctor’s visit before admission. Families and physicians often use this visit as an opportunity to “press the reset button” on prescriptions. A complete reassessment of the senior’s medication regime can take place at this time. Under doctor’s supervision, many seniors are able to go off of medicines that are redundant or have outgrown their usefulness.
Once a senior is admitted to assisted living, a care plan is put in place. Care plans lay out goals and strategies for the resident’s care, and medicines are a big part of the equation. The community, family, senior and medical professionals discuss what medicines will be given to the resident, why, and often set goals for reducing them. In fact, seniors, particularly those with Alzheimer’s and dementia, are often able to reduce their medications after moving to assisted living communities with memory care.
In fact, many seniors who have been prescribed anti-anxiety medications find themselves in an undignified stupor that’s not only painful for loved ones to witness, but also can lead to falls, head injuries and broken bones. Today’s memory care communities attempt to reduce this agitation and anxiety non-chemically, with methods such as:
  • Purposefully designing communities to make people with memory loss feel comfortable
  • Using therapy which reduces a senior’s blood pressure, improves mood and decreases anxiety
  • Encouraging family visits and community involvement
Loren Shook, CEO of Silverado Senior Living, which specializes in memory care, confirms that many residents who move to Silverado communities are able to significantly reduce their medicine intake, and with great benefit.

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Medication Management and Healthy Senior Living

While decreasing the amount of prescribed medications is ideal, it’s not always possible. In some cases, seniors require every medicine they’re prescribed. But even in these cases, assisted living plays an important role. Even if medicines can’t be reduced, it’s important that that they be taken correctly. Medication management, which is offered at nearly all assisted living communities, assures that seniors get the right medicine, at the right dose, at the right time. For seniors with multiple medicines, or with memory loss, this benefit alone can be a lifesaver.
If your aging loved one is on multiple medicines, or is showing changes that you believe may be related to drug interactions, arrange a doctor’s visit to reevaluate medications. Talk to the doctor about what medicines are essential, and which may be doing more harm than good.
If your aging loved one cannot take medication safely on their own, and you can’t be there to help, consider senior living options such as assisted living or memory care communities. Our Senior Care Advisors can help guide your family through the process of finding an appropriate senior living fit to help your relative safely manage their medications, all at no cost to you.


Meet the Author
Jeff Anderson

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.