Similar to blood flowing through our veins, cerebrospinal fluid flows through the spinal column and brain. When everything is working, this fluid provides nutrients and removes waste. But when there’s a fluid buildup, the resulting pressure can cause a variety of severe problems.
Sometimes called “water on the brain”, hydrocephalus is the result of that fluid buildup. The Hydrocephalus Association has estimated that around 700,000 seniors have this condition -- and many of them are unaware of it. Since untreated cases can lead to irreversible brain damage, it’s not a bad idea to be familiar with a few of the telltale signs and symptoms.
Hydrocephalus in Elderly Individuals
Anyone can experience hydrocephalous. Many infants are born with it, but it’s actually seniors who are at the highest risk of developing it in adulthood. Each age group also has a unique set of symptoms, and for the elderly, it mostly comes down to the big three.
The first major symptom is instability or gait disturbance, and roughly nine in ten instances of hydrocephalus in the elderly will involve one of the two. Unfortunately, both can increase the risk of suffering a fall.
Apart from trouble with walking, most instances also involve mental effects, which can be either subtle or severe. That might include memory loss, a gradual loss in reasoning skills, or even something as simple as responding a little slower during the conversation. As a result, hydrocephalus in elderly folks is often misdiagnosed as dementia.
The third and final telltale symptom is urinary incontinence, which is also often misdiagnosed because it has so many related comorbidities. But combined together with the other symptoms, these are the most common identifying factors for hydrocephalus in seniors.
Hydrocephalus Causes in Elderly Patients
The cause of hydrocephalus is often a mystery. But there are several known risk factors, including head injury, stroke, central nervous system infections, and tumors or lesions which affect the brain or spine. In short, we know that damage to the brain can lead to hydrocephalus.
Another thing we know is that if hydrocephalus isn’t promptly treated, it can lead to lasting physical and intellectual disabilities. With less severe cases that receive appropriate treatment, people often have few complications. But in severe cases, hydrocephalus can become life-threatening.
Water on the Brain Elderly Treatment
At this time, there aren’t any effective nonsurgical treatments for hydrocephalus. Treatment involves surgical insertion of a shunt to drain excess fluid. The prognosis for patients who undergo this treatment can vary widely. But statistically speaking, surgical treatments for hydrocephalus tend to help improve cognitive problems with walking and are less likely to affect other symptoms.
Finally, it’s worth noting that because of the similarity in their presentation, your physician may need to rule out a variety of other conditions, including vascular dementia, brain infection, hypothyroidism, and chronic alcoholism. Like with hydrocephalus, many of the possible alternatives benefit greatly from an early diagnosis. In short, anyone experiencing these symptoms should seek medical attention immediately.