Progress made on dreaded disease

Maple Ridge News columnist Graham Hookey: Three-quarters of those with Alzheimer’s over 65 are women

Mental health stats point to the fact that during a lifetime, one in five Canadians will experience a mental health issue.

And the other four out of five will experience it through a friend or relative.  Long relegated to quiet conversations and overt denial, mental health concerns are becoming part of normal conversations related to overall health.

For many years, mental health was viewed as a choice.

People acted the way they did because they made bad choices that led them to do so, or they consciously chose to commit evil deeds.

But in the last 20 years, as new scientific instruments have been able to show the brains of those with mental health issues actually operate differently than those without such issues, we’ve all come to understand such structural problems are a disease – not a choice.

That is not to imply people cannot make bad choices without having a brain dysfunction.

They can and do, but those who suffer from deep depressions, schizophrenic episodes, severe anxiety, compulsive behaviours and a host of other behavioural disorders, do not choose to do so.  In most cases their brains, through chemical, hormonal or structural deficiencies, do not process information in a way that offers them the same quality of life choices that most of us have.

For those over 65, an additional challenge to mental health begins.

Research has indicated one out of 11 people over 65 will develop Alzheimer’s disease.  Of these, 75 per cent will be women, although I think it is fair to conclude this disparity is more a survival factor than a gender factor.

It’s worth noting, as well, that while having Alzheimer’s in the family increases the risk of getting it, the direct link between generations is not a sure thing.

Only about seven per cent of cases are linked to direct genetic inheritance.  Most cases seem to be more directly related to lifestyle.

In other words, an individual may develop Alzheimer’s disease, just as a parent did, not because it is inherited but because both of them suffered from high blood pressure or high cholesterol or some other similar lifestyle factor.

As populations in Europe and North America have begun to age, and the number suffering from various forms of dementia increases, (Alzheimer’s is not the only form of dementia), an increase in the level of research and understanding of the disease has taken place.

Although still the second-most feared disease of the elderly (cancer is first), Alzheimer’s disease, while not curable yet, is becoming more treatable. Healthier lifestyles may be making it more preventable.

The myths of “inevitability” are being shattered and the benefits of early diagnosis and treatment are being recognized in reducing the risks.

The most important step right now, for the general population, is to become better educated on the health factors that may contribute to dementia, so appropriate lifestyle changes can be made, as well as the early warning signs of dementia so that treatment can be initiated in a timely manner.

Back in January, I put the site for the Canadian Alzheimer Society in an article (http://www.alzheimer.ca). Over the next few weeks, I intend to address this topic in support of greater awareness.

Graham Hookey writes on education, parenting and eldercare. Email him at ghookey@yahoo.com.

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