Is It Really Alzheimer's?

NPH is a condition with symptoms that are similar to Alzheimer's and dementia.

November 05, 2008, 6:07 PM

Nov. 6, 2008 — -- When 74-year-old Phil Myers was barely able to walk and his memory seemed to be going quickly, his wife, Shirley Myers, was terrified. She watched as the man she loved and was married to for 54 years slipped away, with thoughts of the two children they'd raised clearly in her mind.

"At first I was scared," Shirley Myers said. "He took care of his family. He was just a family man. That was it. And he did so much for me."

"The doctors kept saying, 'Oh, he's OK. He's OK,' but then things kept getting worse — like dragging his feet. And then he started kind of forgetting where he was at," Shirley Myers said.

The first diagnosis doctors gave Phil Myers was devastating; they believed it was a form of Alzheimer's.

"When they told me it was Alzheimer's, I couldn't believe it because he was only 70 years old and it just didn't seem like it was his time yet," Shirley Myers said.

So the two went to see neurologist Mark Luciano from the Cleveland Clinic. He suspected it wasn't Alzheimer's at all, but rather something called normal pressure hydrocephalus, or NPH.

According to "Good Morning America" medical editor Dr. Tim Johnson, NPH can begin at age 55 and no one knows why.

The condition occurs when cerebral spinal fluid accumulates in the brain. The extra fluid pushes the brain against the nerves that affect memory, walking and balance, and bladder control.

"Hydrocephalis just means water inside the brain. It's when water builds up and starts pressing on the brain itself," Luciano said.

"The symptoms come on very gradually and they can be very subtle," he said. "A gait problem, a problem with your bladder control, a problem with your memory, those are all very common symptoms in our elderly population."

Other symptoms include problems with thinking, a slowing down of the thought process. Since the symptoms are so common, the condition is often misdiagnosed.

That happens in part because the warning signs come on very gradually and they can be very subtle, Johnson said. Also, in the elderly population, loss of memory, walking slowly, bladder control problems are all very common problems, so it looks like many other diseases, such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's or dementia, he added.

"It is one of the only treatable forms of dementia or memory loss. It can be not only treated, but in many cases reversed to a great extent just by removing the fluid," Luciano said.

An MRI of the brain will show the enlarged ventricles and is a way for doctors to properly diagnose the condition, Johnson said.

Treatment for NPH is a relatively simple operation.

"When they told us it was — it would be treatable, it was like a miracle," Shirley Myers said. "We all felt like it's a miracle."

A shunt is implanted in the brain and leads the excess fluid away from the brain and into the abdomen.

"Quite honestly, we weren't sure that fluid removal was going to help him," Luciano said.

Four months ago, Phil Myers had the operation to implant the shunt, four years after his symptoms first appeared.

Now the man, who once had tremendous trouble walking, travels with much more ease.

"It was quite, quite nice to be able to do the things you want to do," he said.

Phil Myers remains in recovery and Luciano said it can take up to a full year to see all the effects of the procedure.

"The improvement that we see now, we hope, that he has for many years," Luciano said.

"He still has a ways to go on some issues, but his walking is terrific. And that's what the doctor was looking for I think. And his balance has improved," Shirley Myers said.

Click here to get more information about NPH.

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