Little-known disorder looks just like dementia — but can be reversed

I publish an item about this condition every so often because people are still being labeled as having irreversible dementia, and Normal-pressure hydrocephalus (NPH) is treatable….

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Loss of memory, mobility problems and issues with bladder control are often considered early indicators of dementia. But those are the same warning signs for a far lesser-known brain disorder that, in many cases, is completely reversible.

Normal-pressure hydrocephalus (NPH) affects an estimated 770,000 people in the U.S. and Canada, according to recent estimates, and most of those patients go undiagnosed. It happens when spinal fluids build up in the skull and put pressure on the brain.

But doctors have developed a surgical treatment that drains the problematic fluid from the skull. When performed early enough, the procedure can fully restore a patient’s memory.

The problem, doctors say, is that NPH often isn’t correctly identified. In Canada alone, doctors estimate that around 15,000 patients may be misdiagnosed with a more serious condition, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, that leaves them bedridden or in nursing homes.

“Patients aren’t as aware of it, and doctors aren’t as aware of it. I would estimate that probably less than five per cent of the people who have it actually are getting treatment,” Dr. Mark Hamilton, a neurosurgeon at the University of Calgary, told CTV News.

It’s a scenario that Don Ethell is familiar with. In 2012, the former lieutenant governor of Alberta was beginning to struggle with mobility loss, memory and bladder control.

“I could see there was something terribly wrong,” said his wife, Linda Ethell.

Fortunately for Ethell, he visited Dr. Hamilton, who runs a specialized clinic at the University of Calgary that focuses on hydrocephalus. Hamilton tested Ethell for NPH and spotted the tell-tale fluid in his brain. He underwent surgery, which involved inserting a tube via his abdomen to the bottom of his skull to allow the fluid to drain out.

In fewer than three months, Ethell went from barely being able to lift his feet to walking normally.

“His walking improved dramatically, and his memory tests right now are normal,” Dr. Hamilton said.

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