Hard-to-diagnose type of dementia can be curable

February 28, 2013 4:55:58 PM PST
The Rev. Billy Graham had it, and so did rock star Dick Wagner of Aerosmith. It's a brain problem that can mimic Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. But it's a curable dementia called NPH, and it can be reversed for most people if it gets diagnosed correctly.

Ron Shillcutt thought he had dementia. He was forgetting things like his mother did.

"She had some type of dementia and I was thinking it was something like that," he said.

His doctor began treating him for Parkinson's, then Alzheimer's.

"He tried that Exelon patch that they often talk about for Alzheimer's -- nothing. So we knew it wasn't that," his wife, Doris Shillcutt, said.

So what had caused his memory loss and sent him to a wheelchair?

"I was just desperate to find something," Doris said.

She found it online, NPH -- normal pressure hydrocephalus. It's a buildup of fluid in the brain that should drain but doesn't.

But Ron's doctors disagreed.

"He said, 'Oh I don't think so,' and I said, 'We'll check it.' And I kept bugging him, you know, and finally he did," Doris said.

It was NPH. Ron had surgery to place a shunt in his brain to drain the excess fluid. It helped. In fact, the shunt procedure reverses the walking and dementia of NPH 80 percent of the time.

"I've seen patients that have progressed as far as being completely in a wheelchair, but even then with a shunt, a lot of those patietns are able to get up and start walking again," said Dr. Dong Kim, a UTHealth neurosurgeon at Memorial Hermann Hospital.

Dr. Kim says NPH is often misdiagnosed. What sets it apart from other problems are the sudden difficulty walking, sudden memory loss, and sudden incontinence.

Ron can walk again and his memory continues to improve. And the multilingual former Air Force pilot can read and write again -- something he couldn't do a year ago.

The shunts are programmable and settings can be changed. The procedure takes a one-day hospital stay. It's estimated that 9-14 percent of people in a nursing home may actually have NPH.
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