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Mental wellness

January 04, 2018

What you need to know about Alzheimer’s

Find out about recent advances in the understanding and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

The number of Canadians living with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia stands at 564,000 and will rise to nearly 1 million in 15 years, according to a fact sheet from the Alzheimer Society of Canada on dementia numbers in Canada.

The disease kills brain cells until a person is incapable of performing tasks, remembering things and, eventually, of even performing bodily functions such as speaking or swallowing. Risk factors for the disease include being female, having Alzheimer’s in your family, being diabetic, smoking, not engaging in physical -- and cognitive -- activity and being depressed.

Warning signs of Alzheimer’s

  • Significant memory loss. Forgetting the names of family members, key appointments and familiar addresses may be a sign of Alzheimer’s.
  • Difficulty with everyday tasks. Preparing meals, tying shoelaces, and buttoning a coat may suddenly present challenges.
  • Putting things in odd places. Are keys turning up in the fridge or a toothbrush in the dryer?
  • Problems with speech. Some may forget simple words and slur their speech.
  • Changes in mood and behaviour. Sudden changes in personality, such as apathy, fearfulness, a lack of confidence, or suspiciousness could signal an issue. Sharp mood swings -- from euphoria to irritability -- may also be a clue to developing Alzheimer's.

Though daunting, a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s by no means indicates a person will decline rapidly. When their condition is caught early, many people take up new hobbies, learn new languages or take long-awaited vacations. “There’s a lot of disbelief, sadness and worry about the future,” says Kathy Hickman, education manager for the Alzheimer Society of Ontario. “But recent advances in the understanding and treatment of Alzheimer’s have made possible a greater quality of life for many than was possible in the past.”

The key is getting diagnosed early. If not caught until an advanced stage, a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s can be challenging, says Marija Padjen, chief program officer for the Alzheimer Society of Toronto. And the strain of caring for someone with Alzheimer’s can lead to physical and mental-health issues for the caregiver, such as decreased immunity, higher levels of stress hormones, depression and anxiety, insomnia and muscle and back issues.

Caring for a person with Alzheimer’s

  1. Remember your own needs. While the person with Alzheimer’s is the centre of attention, do not neglect yourself, says Padjen: “This isn’t a disease you can cope with by yourself.” Call upon friends to give you a break, plan nights out, take 10-minute mental-health breaks -- even if it’s just a bath or a walk around the block.
  2. Don’t negate your emotions. It’s normal to feel guilt, sadness, and anger after a diagnosis, notes the Alzheimer Society’s fact sheet, Impact on family and friends.
  3. Seek counselling if you feel anxiety and depression mounting.
  4. Delegate if possible. While you may feel like it’s your duty to care for your spouse or parent, ask family members or friends to drive the person with Alzheimer’s to the doctor, buy groceries or tidy up the house.
  5. Join support groups online to share experiences. One option is the Alzheimer Society Message Board. Another online resource is Alzlive, a comprehensive website for those who care for people with Alzheimer’s.
  6. Set up meetings with financial planners, attorneys, etc. Try to do this as soon as possible, while the person with Alzheimer’s is still functioning well.
  7. Make time for physical activity and sleep. Sneaking in a workout can help you get the break you need.

People with Alzheimer’s can improve their quality of life by:

  • Staying socially and physically active
  • Challenging themselves with new hobbies or activities
  • Eating a healthy diet high in antioxidants, greens and whole grains
  • Asking their doctors about medications that can improve symptoms

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