More than half a million Canadians are living with a neurocognitive disease. Given the aging population, that figure is estimated to reach 912,000 by 2030. The scope of dementia is such that almost everyone has been personally affected by it in some way. As we mark Alzheimer’s Awareness Month this January, let’s all make an effort to better understand this illness.
Alzheimer’s disease vs. dementia: What’s the difference?
Dementia is not a single disease, but rather a syndrome encompassing multiple conditions. It is characterized by a deterioration in the ability to remember, think, and carry out day-to-day activities, as well as by changes in behaviour. Alzheimer’s disease is a form of dementia. It is the most common type, accounting for about 60 percent of cases. Other types include vascular dementia, dementia with Lewy bodies, and frontotemporal dementia.
How does the disease develop?
Alzheimer’s disease causes brain cells (also known as neurons) to die. Abnormal levels of certain forms of proteins, such as amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles, accumulate inside or between neurons. These changes gradually lead to brain dysfunction and the onset of cognitive impairment.
We now know that brain damage occurs up to 20 years before the first symptoms of the disease begin to appear. Symptoms develop gradually, most often after the age of 65, and worsen as the disease progresses. There are three stages of Alzheimer’s:
- Memory and language problems.
- Difficulty retaining new information.
- Changes in mood and behaviour.
- At this stage, the person needs some help.
- More pronounced decline.
- Difficulty performing daily tasks.
- At this stage, the person needs help to run errands, do housework, get dressed, and bathe.
- At this stage, the person will no longer be able to take care of themselves; they won’t talk anymore and will require 24‑hour care.
- The end of life is near. It’s important to note that most deaths are not caused by the disease itself, but rather its complications (i.e., difficulty swallowing, which often results in dehydration, malnutrition, and pneumonia).
Alzheimer’s disease causes a progressive decline in cognitive abilities such as memory, language, and attention. It can also affect a person’s mood and behaviour.
What does this mean in concrete terms? Below is a summary of the warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease. You can learn more by exploring the numerous resources on the Dementia-Friendly Canada website, which includes free online courses aimed at making communities safer and more welcoming for people living with dementia.
- Memory loss that affects day-to-day abilities, e.g., often forgetting things or struggling to retain new information.
- Difficulty performing familiar tasks, e.g.,forgetting how to do something you’ve done your whole life, such as preparing a meal or getting dressed.
- Problems with language, e.g., forgetting words or using the wrong words.
- Disorientation in time and space, e.g., getting lost near your home or forgetting what day it is.
- Impaired judgment, e.g., not recognizing a medical problem that needs attention or wearing light clothing on a cold day.
- Problems with abstract thinking, e.g., not recognizing numbers on a calculator.
- Misplacing things, e.g., putting things in strange places (such as the iron in the freezer, or a watch in the sugar bowl).
- Changes in mood and behaviour, e.g., extreme mood swings, such as switching from calmness to anger for no apparent reason.
- Changes in personality, e.g.,behaving out of character, such as acting paranoid or feeling threatened.
- Loss of initiative, e.g., losing interest in friends, family, and favourite activities.
A common misconception
Although dementia mainly affects older individuals, it is not a “normal” part of aging. It is, in fact, a disease.
That said, it is normal for certain faculties to slow down as you age. Things like missing an appointment, losing your keys, or forgetting someone’s name are bound to happen from time to time as you get older. Rest assured that these minor incidents can also happen at any age and won’t prevent you from living your life. If you’re worried about your cognitive health, it’s best to talk to your doctor.
Protecting against cognitive decline
We know that the risk of developing a neurocognitive disease increases with age and the presence of certain genes, and that it is higher in women (who make up nearly 60 percent
of those affected). Most of these factors also increase the likelihood of Alzheimer’s, though they are not direct causes.
The good news is that adopting a healthy lifestyle can help reduce the risk of neurocognitive disease. According to scientists, around 40 percent of dementia cases are linked to modifiable factors, meaning factors that are within our control. For example, you can choose to stay active, maintain a healthy diet, and engage in cognitively stimulating activities. This approach is the inspiration behind Lucilab’s motto:
A healthy life means a healthier mind!