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Excess in Blood Can Cause Psychiatric Troubles, Researcher Says

October 17, 1986

PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ An elderly man developed delusions and killed his wife after a glandular growth produced excess calcium in his blood, a warning to check such levels in elderly first-time criminals, a researcher said Friday.

The man’s confusion, memory impairment and paranoid delusions rapidly disappeared once the growth was removed, said Dr. Robert Brown Jr., clinical associate professor of behavioral medicine and psychiatry at the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville.

He said the case should not concern people who consume a lot of calcium in their diets, since the body normally regulates blood calcium levels closely and can get rid of excess calcium without problems.

However, he told a session of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, the case does indicate that abnormal blood levels of minerals like calcium or of electrolytes, substances that aid biochemical processes in the body, should be checked in an elderly first-time offender.

″I’m not trying to say behind every elderly offender is an electrolyte abnormality,″ said Brown. ″(But) it would be very unfortunate to miss the few that are clearly there.″

Another expert agreed Friday that electrolyte and calcium levels should be checked as part of a more comprehensive search for medical causes when psychiatric symptoms appear in the elderly.

High calcium levels can bring on such psychiatric symptoms as depression, confusion, delirium, paranoid ideas and psychosis, which is loss of touch with reality, said Dr. Steve Schleifer, assistant professor of psychiatry at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.

But, he said in a telephone interview, ″most of the time the problems these guys get into don’t involve criminal acts.″

The case Brown described concerned a 68-year-old man who showed no recognized psychiatric symptoms nor domestic violence until shortly before the shooting.

In May 1984 he showed anxiety, confusion and thoughts that people were trying to harm him. Excess blood calcium, or hypercalcemia, was diagnosed but treated ineffectively at the time, Brown said.

The next month, the man said people were trying to harm him, and he suffered a severe anxiety attack. Several days before the shooting, he became suspicious that one of his medications was poison, Brown said.

Early on the morning of Sept. 20, 1984, the man awakened and shot his wife with a shotgun kept by the bed. He also severely wounded his fleeing grandson. In his delusion, the man felt they were trying to kill him, Brown said.

A few minutes after the shootings, the man called police to tell them what he had done, giving a clear account of events and even correcting the police dispatcher’s misunderstanding of his address, Brown said.

After his arrest, he told police his doctor and wife had conspired to ″fix″ him so he could no longer perform sexually.

Lab tests showed high levels of calcium and of a hormone that comes from the parathyroid glands, a group of four glands near the thyroid gland, just below the Adam’s apple. The hormone regulates calcium levels in the blood, Brown said.

One frequent cause of excess hormone secretion by the parathyroid glands is a benign growth called an adenoma on the glands, Brown said. An adenoma was removed from the man’s glands in April 1985, and the psychiatric symptoms soon subsided, Brown said.

Despite testimony about the condition, a jury rejected an insanity defense and sentenced the man to a long prison term, Brown said.

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