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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Making sure Alzheimer's is Alzheimer's

Cindy and Ron Ferguson have come a long way since his diagnosis with brain cancer 20 years ago.

At that time, doctors gave him just six months to live.

But Ron is still alive and both he and Cindy are dealing with a separate, but debilitating, medical condition.

It's a condition that has made the last 20 years anything but easy, especially after Ron was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and then Parkinson's.

Cindy knew her husband and knew something else was going on so she kept pushing for more tests.

Her main concern was he kept falling down, not something typical of Alzheimer's.

"He could not walk anywhere, lean over, try to sit down without falling," she said.

It turns out that having trouble walking is one of the first and most important signs that separates a condition known as Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus, also known as NPH, from Alzheimer's disease.

Up to 5 percent of patients thought to be suffering from Alzheimer's disease actually have this condition instead. According to Dr. Stewart Levy at Saint Anthony Hospital and Intermountain Neurosurgery and Neuroscience, knowing a patient has NPH, instead of Alzheimer's, can make a huge difference.

He says Alzheimer's is the most common cause for dementia, but it's not the only cause. Since the symptoms are just barely treatable in Alzheimer's disease with medication, it's important to identify any potentially reversible causes of dementia, like NPH.

According to Levy, NPH, if it's not reversible, is at least more treatable.

Treatment involves placing a device, known as a shunt to withdraw some excess fluid surrounding the brain. Once that fluid is drawn off, the patient's symptoms improve.

Sometimes the response is dramatic and doctors can see an immediate and amazing response very soon after the spinal tap is done for diagnostic purposes, and soon after the shunt is placed for treatment.

Sometimes the patient's condition improves in the same day.

For Ron and Cindy, life has improved after Ron's shunt was placed, but Cindy still has words of advice for anyone who suspects their loved one might have something other than Alzheimer's disease.

"There are really important questions that need to be asked when somebody tells you you've got Alzheimer's, or that your loved one has Alzheimer's," she said.

Ron's advice is simple: "Don't give up. Push everything you can, 'cause if you don't, you're just going to go downhill.



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