There are some questions that the Alzheimer Society gets asked a lot. We’ve gathered the most common questions and provided their answers in this list. As you review the First Questions listed below, you can click “Expand” to see the answer. Or, if you don’t see your question, try typing it into the Search Bar above. The answer may be provided somewhere else on this site or in a Discussion thread that’s already taking place.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common of a large group of disorders known as “dementias.” It is an irreversible disease of the brain in which the progressive degeneration of brain cells causes thinking ability and memory to deteriorate. Alzheimer’s disease also affects behaviour, mood and emotions, and the ability to perform daily living activities.
Alzheimer's disease is not a normal part of aging. Symptoms include having difficulty remembering things, making decisions and performing everyday activities. These changes can affect the way a person feels and acts. There is currently no way to stop the disease, but research is improving the way we provide care and will continue to search for a cure.
The word dementia is an umbrella term that refers to many different diseases. Different types of dementia are caused by different physical changes to the brain. Some dementias are reversible, meaning that they can be treated and cured. Some are irreversible, meaning that there is no cure yet.
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.
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.
There are two types of Alzheimer's disease. Familial autosomal dominant (FAD) Alzheimer’s disease occurs in less than 5% of all cases of Alzheimer’s disease and has a genetic link. For FAD to occur, the disease needs to be apparent over several generations of one family.
Sporadic Alzheimer's disease is more common (90-95 per cent) and people with this type may or may not have a family history of the disease.
Most of us forget things every day, like people’s names or where we put our car keys, but this is not necessarily a sign of Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia. In dementia, memory loss is more serious than forgetting things occasionally. It is memory loss that starts to interfere with your everyday life, for example, you finally found your car keys but can't remember what they are used for, it might be time to see your doctor.
There are many reasons why people become forgetful. Some medicines and drugs can affect memory. Stress, depression, anxiety, vitamin deficiency and thyroid problems can also cause memory issues, so it’s important to get the right diagnosis. If you are worried about your memory, if it’s getting worse, or interfering with everyday life, then you should talk to your family doctor.
Alzheimer's disease affects each individual differently. The symptoms, the order in which they appear and the duration of each stage of the disease vary greatly from person to person.
In most cases, the disease progresses slowly, and the symptoms of each stage may overlap, often making the move from one stage to another quite subtle. The duration of the disease is usually seven to ten years but may be much longer in some people.
Alzheimer's disease typically follows certain stages which will bring about changes in the person's and family's lives. The stages of Alzheimer’s disease are commonly referred to as “early”, “middle” and “late”.
Read more about these stages in the series The Progression of Alzheimer’s Disease or type a question in the search bar above to learn more.
There is currently no cure for Alzheimer's disease and other dementias, nor is there a treatment that will stop the progression. Several drugs on the market and non-pharmacological treatments may help with some symptoms.
Some non-pharmacological therapies (such as music therapy, aromatherapy, pet therapy, and massage) may be beneficial to people with dementia. However, a lack of research prevents us from determining the effectiveness of many alternative treatments. The Alzheimer Society is funding projects in these areas in order to identify beneficial therapies for people with the disease.
When considering the use of natural health products, think about the following to minimize your risk:
- Don't assume "natural" means "safe."
- Be wary of unsubstantiated health-related claims.
- Herbal remedies can change the way prescription drugs work. Be aware of interactions with other drugs and tell your doctor and pharmacist about any herbal remedies you may be taking.
Remember that many conditions have symptoms similar to dementia, so it is important not to assume that someone has dementia just because some of the symptoms are present. Strokes, depression, alcoholism, infections, hormone disorders, nutritional deficiencies and brain tumours can all cause dementia-like symptoms. Many of these conditions can be treated.
If your wife is reluctant to see her doctor, this can be a tricky situation. She may not be aware of the changes in her abilities that you see. You might try one the following:
- Make sure the doctor knows of your concerns before the appointment takes place. Be as specific as possible. This checklist can help you prepare for your doctor’s visit.
- Suggest she go for an annual check-up. She may be more comfortable getting an overall check-up than seeing the doctor for memory problems. Many symptoms that look like Alzheimer's disease can be caused by other treatable conditions, so it's important to get a thorough assessment if you have concerns.
- Contact the doctor's office directly. Explain your concerns and ask if she or he will invite your wife in for a check-up. She might be more willing if the doctor suggests the appointment.
Be sure to provide a lot of reassurance. A calm, caring attitude at this time can help overcome the person’s very real worries and fears.
There is no single test that can determine if a person has Alzheimer's disease. The diagnosis is made through a series of tests that help eliminate other possible causes. Until there is a conclusive test, doctors may continue to use the words "probable Alzheimer's disease." However, you should be aware that doctors making this diagnosis are accurate 80 to 90 per cent of the time.
Making the diagnosis can take time. If scans and other investigations are required, it could be 4-12 weeks, depending on waiting lists. If the person is in the early stages of dementia, a 6-12 month period of monitoring may be required before a diagnosis can be made.
Diagnosing dementia is a complex and difficult process. There is no one test that can tell if someone does or does not have Alzheimer's disease or another dementia. One of the tests your doctor will use is a mental status test. Various forms of this test exist, but the important point is that the doctor administers and evaluates the test using skill, knowledge and experience. This is different from memory screening tests, which are done in the community without professional analysis.
Memory screening done in the community (or “population-based memory screening”), usually involves giving someone a simple mental status test. After the test, the result is a number that shows if someone may have memory problems.
Often these brief mental tests result in "false positives" and "false negatives." A "false positive" is when a person who doesn’t have Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia still fails or scores poorly on the test. A "false negative" happens when person who does have Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia "passes" or scores well on the test.
It takes time and expertise to diagnosis dementia, because the doctors first have to rule out other possible causes, such as depression, thyroid or heart disease, infections, drug reactions or alcohol abuse.
People who are experiencing memory issues accompanied by difficulties in day-to-day activities and skills should contact their health-care provider.
Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias are complex diseases of the brain and qualified health care providers should be involved in diagnosing these conditions.
Online self-assessments of cognitive health are possibly useful for the screening of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias and may pose risks to users unless completed following the advice of a health provider to do so.
Scientists have raised ethical concerns with most online self-assessments for the diagnosis or screening of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, such as potential issues around the privacy and confidentiality of the information collected.
The Alzheimer Society provides information, education and support to help people with dementia and their families live as well as possible.
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.
In this session an expert in seniors’ health will explain what the latest research tells us about the possibility of reducing our chances of getting Alzheimer’s disease and the variety of risk factors for developing Alzheimer’s disease.
The claim has to do with ketones. Ketones are what our bodies produce when they convert fat into energy. The primary source of energy for the brain is glucose. In Alzheimer’s disease, it’s believed that brain cells have difficulty metabolizing glucose. But the theory is that ketones that are produced in our bodies when digesting coconut oil may provide an alternative fuel source to keep the brain nourished.
Currently, there is no research to support or refute the theory that coconut oil can prevent or treat dementia. However, the interest in coconut oil highlights some important questions to consider when evaluating research evidence:
- Where was the study published?
Research results are reported in many places, including the media. But for health-care providers, researchers, policymakers and others who rely on research findings, they will typically consult peer-reviewed journals. Peer review is a system whereby an article is evaluated by experts, providing credibility to the research, including assurance that the study’s methods and conclusions are appropriate.
- How was the study carried out?
There are many ways researchers could study the effects of something like coconut oil. For example, they could identify a group of people and measure how much coconut oil each one consumes then follow them over time and compare the risk of developing dementia. This type of study is called “observational.” Researchers study peoples’ behaviours and link these behaviours to health outcomes. Observational studies can be very powerful. However, observational studies must also be interpreted in context with their susceptibility to bias. In this example, people who consume coconut oil may differ from those who do not in various ways. These differences could explain why dementia is (or is not) more common in one group. For this reason, to obtain stronger evidence of “cause and effect” researchers conduct randomized controlled trials (RCTs). With RCTs, study participants are randomly assigned to receive an intervention such as a drug, diet or lifestyle program, or not. This random assignment is meant to make the groups as similar as possible, except for having received the intervention being studied. The study participants are followed over time and their health outcomes are compared.
The bottom line
The effect of coconut oil on Alzheimer’s disease is unclear and more research is required before drawing any firm conclusions. But the interest in coconut oil reinforces the value we place on research. It’s our best hope of finding effective treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias and improving the quality of life and care for those affected.
Should my partner still be allowed to drive? I don’t want to tell him or her that they can’t and yet I think they shouldn’t. What can I do?
Alzheimer's disease and other dementias cause changes that affect a person's ability to drive a motor vehicle safely. A diagnosis of dementia, however, does not automatically mean that a person is incapable of driving. Some people may be capable of driving safely for some time after the diagnosis, depending on when in the disease progression the person has been diagnosed and the rate the disease progresses. Eventually, however, people with Alzheimer's disease must stop driving, as it will no longer be safe.
Look into special testing to assess the driving abilities of a person with dementia. This could be a driving simulation test and/or a road test, carried out by someone with experience in testing drivers with cognitive problems.
Use the search bar above to find a driving assessment service (such as DriveAble or MARD) in your area. If it is not available, ask a doctor to determine if and when the person is no longer able to drive.
We all enjoy a change of scenery and a break from routines. However, as Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias progress, changes in abilities can make it difficult to get away.
Careful planning will help you manage the changes in surroundings and routines. Here are some tips to make the trip easier:
Have a plan
- Include the person with dementia in your planning. Give her a copy of the trip itinerary for her reference.
- If you are planning to visit friends and family, tell them about the changes since your last visit.
- Learn as much as you can about the place you’ll be visiting, so you can anticipate what you’ll need.
- Think ahead about activities that may need to be adjusted.
- Consider a holiday package, where everything is organized for you.
- Register the person with the Alzheimer Society’s MedicAlert®Safely Home®. Members receive an engraved identification bracelet, which allows police and emergency responders to quickly identify a person who gets separated.
- Carry recent photographs, details of what the person is wearing, and preferred places of interest. This will help during a search if one is necessary.
- Keep a copy of the name and number of your hotel in a familiar spot in the person’s purse or pocket, so he can ask for help if needed.
- Aim for as few changes in routine as you reasonably can.
- Try to get a direct flight.
- If you’re travelling by car for a long distance, consider extending the time to get there and driving shorter distances each day.
Ask for help
- If possible, have an additional person travel with you to help.
- Make sure that your travel agent is aware of any special needs.
- Inform the airline that you are travelling with a person with dementia. You may want to request early boarding, a wheelchair, transportation upon arrival, help getting on and off the plane or with stowing carry-on baggage.
- Request seating near washrooms.
- If you are staying at a hotel, let the staff know about your needs and explain some of the possible difficulties you think you might encounter.
I have a young child/teen who wants to know what is happening to their grandparent. How do I handle this?
The most important way to help children or grandchildren cope with dementia is to talk openly and be willing to listen. They need the opportunity to ask questions and express their feelings without fear of a negative reaction. Take a look at our resources below for more tips.
Focus - Helping Children Understand Alzheimer Disease
Focus - Helping Teens Understand Alzheimer Disease
If you have Alzheimer’s disease or another dementia, it is important for you to be a part of the decision-making about your financial and legal affairs, while you are able to make decisions and sign legal papers. Making arrangements in the early stages means that that you are able to control your own future.
Talk to your family. Make sure your money matters will be in the hands of someone you trust. Arrange for a power of attorney authorizing someone to legally make decisions on your behalf once you are no longer able to. Talk to a lawyer about naming someone to look after your financial interests.
Use the search bar above to find an Office of the Public Guardian close to you. They can provide additional information and guidance.
As dementia progresses, care needs increase and the person with dementia will need supervision and care both during the day and at night. It can become difficult for the caregiver to meet the increasing care needs in advanced stages of dementia. Some individuals with dementia tend to leave home if they are unsupervised, leading to concerns about the safety of the individual and wandering. Other factors to consider are the caregiver’s physical and mental health and their stress load in addition to the behavioural changes and sleep disturbances experienced by the person with dementia. These things can make it very challenging to care for the person at home. The time to move the person to a care facility varies based on the individuals involved and the situation. The decision is best made by the family.
Refer to the Alberta Health website on Alberta’s continuing care system for detailed information about options and costs:
We are expecting to see the number of people living with dementia in Alberta more than double in the next 30 years. Under current trends, the projections for are as follows (more details can be found in the tables and figures on the following pages):
o 2020: 52,000 (61.2% female)
o 2050: 200,900 (61.2% female)
• Estimated and projected number of unpaid dementia care partners, and hours of care provided in Alberta:
o 2020: 30,300 (40.1 million hours/year)
o 2050: 118,200 (161.4 million hours/year)
• The Landmark Study also used the simulation model to examine what the impact that delaying the onset of dementia would have on the incidence and prevalence rates in Alberta. Below are some of the highlights:
o Current trends indicate an increase of 148,900 cases of dementia in AB by 2050. This is a 286% increase from 2020 estimates of dementia in the province.
o Based on the model estimates, a 1-year delay in the onset of dementia in individuals would prevent approximately 47,300 new cases of dementia occurring by 2050 in Alberta.
o A 10-year delay of onset for dementia would result in 2050 AB dementia prevalence (58,000) being only slightly higher than the 2020 estimates, effectively flattening the curve.
▪ If achieved today, this 10-year delay in onset would see AB avoid 392,800 cases of dementia by 2050.
▪ If the onset of dementia is deferred 10 years, the model estimates a 25% increase in the number of care partners in Alberta from 2020 to 2050, opposed to a 290% increase if current trends are continued. This deferred incidence is associated with a large reduction in estimate caregiving hours in 2050. With a 10-year delayed onset, the 2050 estimate of 161.4 million hours with current trends reduces to 47.2 million.
Ask family members and friends for their help and support. Take advantage of community programs that provide respite and relief from caregiving, practical help with meals or housework and assistance with the care of the person with Alzheimer's disease. And plan ahead for both the immediate future and the long term. These are just some of the things caregivers can do to make their lives a bit easier.
Contact your local Alzheimer Society for help with connecting to services such as support groups, counseling and information resources. Use the search bar above to find a Community Care Access office of Alberta Health Services close to you. They can provide information about publicly funded respite options.
The Alzheimer Society in your community can provide educational resources to help you learn more about the disease, referrals to help you access the practical support you need, and one-on-one and group support to help you cope with the emotional impact of the disease. Contact your local Alzheimer Society. Alternativley, try typing your question into the search bar above.