Alicia Harper was thoroughly confused and sitting in a wheelchair while her husband, Nildo, helplessly looked on, wondering what on earth had happened to her. This formerly vigorous woman had become wheelchair-bound and incontinent. She also showed clear signs of dementia and was diagnosed with probable Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
Nildo, a former university professor of physics, became ever more distressed while watching his wife of over 50 years fade right before his very eyes. "She was just going down, down, down," he says. "At first it was gradual but then it started going faster. I had to do everything for her. I couldn't leave the house unless someone was here with her."
After six years and consultations with numerous physicians, it turned out that Alicia did not have Alzheimer's or Parkinson's after all. She had a rare disorder called normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH). Amazingly, within two weeks of a surgical procedure, she was walking and thinking clearly again. "It's a miracle," says Nildo. "All of her symptoms are gone now. We thank the Lord and the doctors every day. She's a new person."
Approximately 5.4 million Americans have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and many more are showing symptoms of it. A small number of them, such as Alicia, actually have something else.
Conditions that can masquerade as Alzheimer's include underactive thyroid, vitamin deficiencies, too much calcium in the blood, syphilis that has spread to the brain, severe clinical depression, delirium, certain viral or bacterial infections, lead and mercury poisoning, schizophrenia and NPH, Alicia's rare disorder. Many of these are treatable, and some are completely curable.
The Hydrocephalus Association (www.hydroassoc.org) estimates that nearly 400,000 Americans have NPH, a neurological disorder caused by a build-up of cerebrospinal fluid that leads to enlarged ventricles in the brain. Most cases have no identifiable cause, although it can sometimes be attributed to previous brain surgery or injury.
The three main symptoms of NPH are progressive mental impairment and dementia, problems with walking and impaired bladder control. "Many patients suffer for years with NPH without knowing what is wrong with them," says Gail Rosseau, MD, a neurosurgeon from NorthShore University HealthSystem in Chicago. "There is even a low awareness of NPH in the medical community so patients and their families often struggle to get a diagnosis."
Jimmy Nowell, of Clifton, Texas, was having symptoms similar to those of Alicia. He started falling frequently, and he had to leave his job as an auto parts salesman because his mental state had deteriorated to the point where he couldn't even remember the names of clients he'd been serving for years. Like Alicia, Jimmy was eventually diagnosed with NPH. Shortly after surgery he was again enjoying his normal activities.
"He didn't even recognize me before," says his wife, Ann. "In fact he was calling me Fred. After his surgery when I got off the elevator at the hospital, he knew me. I burst into tears."
Soon after, Jimmy asked Ann to marry him again. "I went down on one knee to ask her, which blew her away because I couldn't have begun to get down like that previously." He says she jokingly told him she'd get back to him about it. She did accept, and they had the ceremony on the day of their 50th wedding anniversary.
"I was close to having to put him in a nursing home, but now the light is back in his eyes and his symptoms are gone," says Ann. "If our lives ended tonight there would be no regrets after this miracle."
Treatment for the disorder is typically the placement of a shunt under the patient's scalp to drain excess fluid from the brain to the abdomen. From there it is absorbed back into the bloodstream. According to the Hydrocephalus Association, the procedure brings about the complete alleviation of symptoms in some patients, while others' symptoms are partially relieved.
"It's the most gratifying surgery I do," says Rosseau, who places approximately 40 shunts per year. "The surgery takes less than an hour to perform, and most patients are in the hospital only a couple of days."
Although the outcome of the surgery varies from patient to patient, for those who have a significant benefit, like Alicia and Jimmy, it is truly miraculous. It quickly gives them back their lives after what may have been years of mental and physical deterioration.
So if you or a loved one is having symptoms of Alzheimer's, be sure to consult a physician. And the sooner the better. It just may turn out to be something else that can be partially or completely reversed.