Alzheimer’s, A Mental Health Stigma?
Although World Alzheimer’s Month is September, Mental Illness Awareness Week is in October, and unfortunately, Alzheimer’s Disease is now often treated with a similar stigma that haunts sufferers of many mental illnesses.
What is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia (general term for loss of memory and other cognitive abilities that interferes with daily life) that causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior. Alzheimer’s accounts for 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases and currently has no known cause or cure. The biggest risk factor is simply aging.
The most common early symptom of Alzheimer’s is difficulty remembering newly learned information. This is because the negative changes to the brain due to Alzheimer’s begin in the cerebrum, the part of the brain that affects learning. As it advances through the brain, Alzheimer’s will lead to more severe symptoms such as confusion/disorientation; mood and behavior swings; deepening confusion about events, times and places; unfounded suspicions about loved ones and caregivers; more pronounced memory loss and negative behavior changes; and eventually difficulty speaking, swallowing and walking.
How are Alzheimer’s Disease and Mental Illness Related?
Mental illness is defined as is a disease that causes mild to severe disturbances in thought and/or behavior, making it hard for the patient to cope with life’s ordinary demands and routines. Sound familiar?
While there are over 200 official classified forms of mental illness, some are more well known than others. The more “popular” disorders are: clinical depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders… and dementia.
Remember that Alzheimer’s Disease is the primary cause of dementia, and therefore is tied to mental illness.
However, while society for a while has accepted that sufferer’s of Alzheimer’s and dementia are not at fault for their disease and unable to prevent its progression, the same amount of grace has rarely been given to sufferers of other mental illnesses such as depression, bipolar and anxiety. These illnesses often come with a stigma, which is aptly called the “mental health stigma” that implies it can be easily prevented, managed or dismissed and the patient is simply being dramatic or unreasonable.
Thankfully, as research, awareness and medical treatments progress, it is becoming far more common knowledge that all mental health diseases, not just dementia/Alzheimer’s, are a true medical condition requiring treatment and long term medical care.
Interestingly enough, while the general acceptance of bipolar, depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses is on the rise, those who are a part of the Alzheimer’s community (patients, family, friends, professionals) are experiencing an opposite trend. They report that they are battling the stigma that Alzheimer’s cannot be cured or treated in any way, and therefore patients should be set aside, left to succumb to their disease without much grace or understanding. This is simply not true!
It is true that Alzheimer’s is an ugly, progressive disease that causes increasingly dramatic loss of mental and emotional capacity and caring for an Alzheimer’s patient can be challenging at times. However, this does not mean that treating and managing symptoms and working to delay progression should not be attempted!
As such, the Alzheimer’s community has been working hard to break this stigma. They want those who may have just been diagnosed, or the family and friends of loved ones suffering to know that while there is no prevention or cure, there are treatment options that can help delay and reduce the negative symptoms of Alzheimer’s and they absolutely should be pursued!
Symptomatic treatment options include: medications and exercises to support memory, behavioral therapy, treatment for sleep changes, and many supplemental alternative therapies. You can read more about the many options for helping Alzheimer’s patients here.
Mental health stigma needs to be left in the past! Ongoing research has proven mental diseases are in fact due to various changes in brain make up and chemistry, and can be treated with many different types of medical interventions and therapies! If you or someone you know is suffering from depression, anxiety, dementia/Alzheimer’s or any of the other 200+ known mental illnesses, know that it is no one’s fault or choice! The best course of treatment is to seek proper medical intervention and to have supportive, encouraging and helpful friends and family!