Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia Facts
What is dementia?
Dementia is an overall term for a set of symptoms that are caused by disorders affecting the brain. Symptoms may include memory loss and difficulties with thinking, problem-solving or language, severe enough to reduce a person’s ability to perform everyday activities. A person with dementia may also experience changes in mood or behaviour.
Dementia is progressive, which means the symptoms will gradually get worse as more brain cells become damaged and eventually die.
Dementia is not a specific disease. Many diseases can cause dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia (due to strokes), Lewy Body disease, head trauma, fronto-temporal dementia, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, Parkinson’s disease, and Huntington’s disease. These conditions can have similar and overlapping symptoms.
Some treatable conditions can produce symptoms similar to dementia, for example, vitamin deficiencies, thyroid disease, sleep disorders, or mental illness. It is therefore important to arrange for a full medical assessment as early as possible.
Getting a timely diagnosis can help you access information, resources and support through the Alzheimer Society, benefit from treatment, and plan ahead.
Normal aging vs dementia
Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias are not a part of normal aging.
Almost 40 per cent of people over the age of 65 experience some form of memory loss. When there is no underlying medical condition causing this memory loss, it is known as “age-associated memory impairment,” which is considered a part of the normal aging process.
Brain diseases like Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias are different.
Age-associated memory impairment and dementia can be told apart in a number of ways. Below are some examples.
Note: this is not a diagnostic tool.
Not being able to remember details of a conversation or event that took place a year ago Not being able to recall details of recent events or conversations
Not being able to remember the name of an acquaintance Not recognizing or knowing the names of family members
Forgetting things and events occasionally Forgetting things or events more frequently
Occasionally have difficulty finding words Frequent pauses and substitutions when finding words
You are worried about your memory but your relatives are not Your relatives are worried about your memory, but you are not aware of any problems
If you are worried about your memory, talk to your family doctor.
Tips for coping with normal age-related memory difficulties:
Keep a routine
Organize information (keep details in a calendar or day planner)
Put items in the same spot (always put your keys in the same place by the door)
Repeat information (repeat names when you meet people)
Run through the alphabet in your head to help you remember a word
Make associations (relate new information to things you already know)
Involve your senses (if you are a visual learner, visualize an item)
Teach others or tell them stories
Get a full night’s sleep
Learn more about what you can do to maintain your brain health and strengthen your memory
It’s important to know when to see your doctor about memory concerns but it’s equally important to know that forgetting someone’s name doesn’t necessarily mean that you are getting dementia.
As of June 2016, an estimated 564,000 Canadians are living with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, yet people with the illness often feel excluded or treated differently.
Stereotypes or misinformation can intimidate friends and family. Some believe that nothing can be done, or dismiss symptoms as “just a normal part of old age.”
Negative language is often used to describe Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. The wording tends to focus on the illness and reduces people with the disease to a series of labels, symptoms or medical terms.
It is important to be aware that negative reactions from friends, family and professionals can impact a person’s well-being and ability to manage the changes brought about by the disease.
Where do you stand? Test your attitude. Our quiz offers six scenarios and asks how you would handle the situation. There is no right or wrong answer, but your responses may surprise you.
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Be a stigma buster
Stigma not only hurts people with the disease but also discourages their families from confiding in others or getting the support they need.
You can help reduce stigma.
Here are six easy ways you can make a difference:
Learn the facts. Share your knowledge about dementia with others, including family and friends, especially if you hear something that isn’t true. Talking about dementia lessens our fear and increases understanding.
Don’t make assumptions. Dementia is a progressive disease and affects each person differently. A diagnosis doesn’t mean the person will have to stop his daily routine or give up working right away.
Watch your language. Do you use statements like “she’s losing her marbles,” or “he has old-timer’s disease?” Don’t make light of dementia. We don’t tolerate racial jokes, yet dementia jokes are common.
Treat people with dementia with respect and dignity. A person’s ability to do things we take for granted will change as the disease progresses. But no matter what stage of the disease, she’s still the person she always was, with unique abilities and needs. Appreciate who she is. Don’t talk around her or avoid her at family and social gatherings.
Be a friend. People with dementia don’t want to lose their friends nor do they want to stop doing activities they enjoy. Be supportive. Stay in touch and connected. Social activity helps slow the progression of the disease and lets people with dementia know you care.
Speak up! Don’t stand for media stereotypes that perpetuate stigma and myths. Call or write your local radio or television station or newspaper. Media is a powerful force in affecting how we act and think.
Alzheimer’s disease is irreversible and destroys brain cells, causing thinking ability and memory to deteriorate. Alzheimer’s disease is not a normal part of aging.
What is Alzheimer’s disease?
Dr. Alois Alzheimer first identified the disease in 1906. He described the two hallmarks of the disease: “plaques,” which are numerous tiny, dense deposits scattered throughout the brain that become toxic to brain cells at excessive levels, and “tangles,” which interfere with vital processes, eventually choking off the living cells. When brain cells degenerate and die, the brain markedly shrinks in some regions.
The image below shows that a person with Alzheimer’s disease has less brain tissue (right) than a person who does not have the disease (left). This shrinkage will continue over time, affecting how the brain functions.
The effects of Alzheimer’s disease
Alzheimer’s disease is a fatal disease that eventually affects all aspects of a person’s life: how they think, feel, and act. Each person is affected differently. It is difficult to predict symptoms, the order in which they will appear, or the speed of their progression.
The following are some of the changes you may expect as the disease progresses.
Cognitive and functional abilities: a person’s ability to understand, think, remember and communicate will be affected. This could impact a person’s ability to make decisions, perform simple tasks, or follow a conversation. Sometimes people lose their way, or experience confusion and memory loss, initially for recent events and eventually for long-term events.
Emotions and moods: a person may appear apathetic and lose interest in favourite hobbies. Some people become less expressive and withdrawn.
Behaviour: a person may have reactions that seem out of character. Some common reactions include repeating the same action or words, hiding possessions, physical outbursts and restlessness.
Physical abilities: the disease can affect a person’s coordination and mobility, to the point of affecting their ability to perform day-to-day tasks such as eating, bathing and getting dressed.
There are several medications that can help with symptoms such as memory decline, changes in language, thinking abilities and motor skills. Although there is still no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, those who respond to these treatments can experience improvements in their quality of life for several years.
The human brain is one of your most vital organs. It plays a role in every action and every thought, and just like the rest of your body, it needs to be looked after.
Can Alzheimer’s disease be prevented? There are no guarantees, but healthy lifestyle choices will help keep your brain as healthy as possible as you age.
By making better lifestyle choices now, you can improve your brain’s ability to sustain long-term health and fight illnesses.
Be good to your brain:
Be socially active
Follow a healthy diet
Be physically active
Protect your head
Make healthy lifestyle choices
Do your brain a favour – volunteer!