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Mental Health

Alzheimer's Disease

 

Author: Canadian Mental Health Association, BC Division

 

photo of two seniors at a park

Many of us look forward to our retirement and see our later years as a chance to reflect and enjoy the lives we built for ourselves. But for hundreds of thousands of Canadians, this time of reflection becomes a time of confusion and loss. Some memory loss is a normal part of aging, but when memory loss, difficulty in learning new things, and confusion impact your day-to-day life, it might be a sign of Alzheimer's disease.

What is it?

Alzheimer's disease destroys cells in the brain. Nerve cells lose their ability to communicate with each other and nutrients can't reach cells, which makes cells die. Over time, these changes in the brain affect the way you think, remember, act and feel. They also affect the way you communicate with others and the way you move your body. Alzheimer's disease can't be stopped, but treatments may slow the progression of the illness.

Alzheimer's disease is considered a neurocognitive disorder, which is a disease which affects how your brain functions. It is part of a group of diseases called dementia. Dementia itself isn't a disease—it refers to symptoms that can be caused by many different diseases or changes in your body. Alzheimer's disease is the most common type of dementia, and it accounts for about two-thirds of all dementias.

Alzheimer's disease generally starts slowly. In the early stages, you may notice that you have a hard time remembering information you’ve learned recently. As it progresses, you might:

  • Feel increasingly confused or disoriented

  • Forget events or information, usually starting with recent events or information

  • Forget words, such as forgetting which words to use or having a hard time making sentences that others can understand

  • Lose interest in your usual activities

  • Struggle to follow other people's conversations

  • Find it difficult to complete familiar everyday tasks

  • Have a hard time making decisions, planning or organizing, or make risky or illogical decisions

  • Find it harder to control your body's movements

  • Feel more down or irritable

What are related dementias?

"Related dementias" are illnesses that can look like Alzheimer's disease. Alzheimer's disease and related dementias are also grouped together because they're all caused by changes in the brain that can't be stopped. Related dementias include vascular dementia, Lewy body dementia, frontotemporal dementia and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

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Who does it affect?

About half a million Canadians live with Alzheimer's disease or a related dementia. It may be more likely to affect the follow groups of people:

Older adults—The risk of developing Alzheimer's disease or a related dementia increases with age. It affects about 1 in 11 people over the age of 65, but increases to 1 in 3 people over the age of 85.

Women—Women have a greater risk of developing Alzheimer's disease, partly because women live longer than men.

Family members—A rare form of Alzheimer's disease tends to run in families. But in general, genes don't cause Alzheimer's disease&mash;they're only one of many factors that influence your risk of developing it.

People with health conditions—Different health conditions can increase the risk of Alzheimer's disease. This includes poor cardiovascular health, like high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking. Type 2 diabetes may increase the risk of Alzheimer's disease. Traumatic brain injuries like concussions may be a factor in developing Alzheimer's disease. Health factors like a poor diet, poor sleep, and social isolation may also contribute to Alzheimer's disease.

Environmental factors—There is increasing evidence that there is a relationship between Alzheimer's disease and long-term exposure to chemicals like those found in vehicle exhaust and pesticides.

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Could I have Alzheimer's disease?

  • I often forget about events that happened recently

  • I find it hard to do day-to-day things like banking or cooking a meal

  • I have a hard time remembering words or forming sentences

  • I find it hard to follow conversations or respond to others

  • I have a hard time making decisions or planning things

  • I often feel disoriented and can't figure out where I am, even if I've been there before

  • I often misplace things and find them in strange places

  • My loved ones have told me that I've been acting differently

  • My moods change a lot more quickly than they used to

  • My personality is changing—I often feel withdrawn, suspicious, fearful or confused

  • I just don't feel like doing things I used to enjoy

It's normal to occasionally forget where you put your keys. With Alzheimer's disease or a related dementia, you might forget what keys are for or how to use them. If you notice that some of the signs above are affecting your daily life, talk to your doctor.

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What can I do about it?

If you suspect that you might have Alzheimer's disease, or if you suspect that a loved one might have it, it's best to talk to your doctor. Symptoms like poor memory or concentration can also be caused by different mental illnesses or physical health problems. Your doctor can figure out what might be behind your symptoms.

There is no cure for Alzheimer's disease, but treatments can help manage symptoms and help you live well for as long as possible.

Medication—There are several different medications that help reduce the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. There is a lot of research on Alzheimer's disease, and many researchers hope to find a treatment that slows or even prevents Alzheimer's altogether.

Counselling—A mental health practitioner can help you cope with your thoughts and feelings. Different types of therapy can also help you cope with the day-to-day challenges of dementia and help you develop strategies to manage symptoms.

Healthy living—Eating as well as you can, exercising regularly, managing stress, staying connected to your social and support networks, and challenging your mind can help you live well and take control of your health. Some studies show that people with Alzheimer's disease who stay active and connected with their social networks may have better cognitive abilities like learning, thinking, and decision-making than people who are isolated.

Support groups—Support groups, such as groups for people in the early stages, are a great place to meet other people living with Alzheimer's disease. You can learn more about dementia and share new ways to cope. Alzheimer's disease can greatly impact your whole family and caregivers, so family or caregiver support groups are also helpful.

Tips for families and loved ones

Alzheimer' s disease can have a profound impact on the entire family. Here are some tips for family members and loved ones:

  • Acknowledge your own feelings. It's normal to feel angry, scared, or embarrassed. But if you're having a hard time coping with your feelings, it's a good idea to talk to your doctor or mental health professional.

  • Learn about what to expect, what treatment options are available and what kind of care your loved one will need. You can also learn strategies to help your loved one live with dignity, such as how to communicate with your loved one.

  • Reach out for help and advice. Find out what caregiving resources are available in your community. Consider joining a caregiver's support group, and avoid isolating yourself from family and friends.

  • Prepare for the future. Help your loved one take care of their personal, financial and legal matters while they can still make their own decisions.

  • Learn how to communicate well with your loved one. People with dementia may be highly attuned to nonverbal communication cues like tone and facial expressions, especially as their language skills decline. Feelings like anger, frustration, or fear have a way of coming though without words, which can cause problems. Taking care of your own well-being and seeking support can help you manage difficult feelings as well as navigate a new way to communicate.

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Where do I go from here?

There are a number of resources available in BC for people living with Alzheimer’s disease and their loved ones:

Alzheimer Society of BC

Visit alzheimer.ca/bc/en or call the First Link Dementia Hotline at 1-800-936-6033 for more information and helpful tip sheets about Alzheimer's disease and related dementias. The Alzheimer Society offers support groups and education sessions across the province for people living with dementia and their families. To connect with staff or volunteers in person at your Regional Resource Centre, find local contact information at www.alzheimer.ca/bc/en/help-support/find-support-bc.

First Link® Dementia Helpline is a helpline for anyone who needs support or information about dementia. You can also call to find local resources in your community. Visit alzheimer.ca/bc/en/help-support/find-support-bc/first-link-dementia-helpline or call:

  • Help in English: Call 1-800-936-6033 Monday to Friday from 9:00am to 8:00pm.

  • Help in Cantonese and Mandarin: Call 1-833-674-5007 Monday to Friday from 9:00am to 4:00pm.

  • Help in Punjabi: Call 1-833-674-5003 Monday to Friday from 9:00am to 4:00pm.

Family Caregivers of BC

Visit www.familycaregiversbc.ca for caregiver resources and information and virtual caregiver support groups. Call the BC Caregiving Support Line at 1-877-520-3267 Monday to Friday from 8:30am to 7:00pm to talk with staff and find support, referrals, health systems navigations, and more.

Canadian Virtual Hospice

Visit www.virtualhospice.ca for information on accessing palliative and end-of-life care and working with health care providers, directories of local and virtual services like grief counselling and caregiver supports, and suggested resources like books and websites on a number of topics related to serious illness, death, and bereavement.

BC Partners for Mental Health and Substance Use Information

Visit www.heretohelp.bc.ca for more information about mental health problems. Here you can also find our Family Toolkit. The Toolkit is full of information, tips and self-tests to help you support a family member with a mental illness.

BC Mental Health Support Line

Crisis lines aren't only for people in crisis. You can call for information on local services or if you just need someone to talk to. If you are in distress, call 310-6789 (no area code) 24 hours a day to connect to a BC crisis line, without a wait or busy signal.

HealthLink BC

Call 811 or visit www.healthlinkbc.ca to access free, non-emergency health information for anyone in your family, including information about Alzheimer’s disease or related dementia. Through 811, you can also talk with:

  • A registered nurse

  • A health navigator to find local services and resources

  • A pharmacist if you have questions about a medication

  • A dietitian

  • An exercise professional

 

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