What you need to know about Alzheimer’s

Imagine a life in which forgetting things is no longer just a minor annoyance, but a daily struggle. Imagine living with the knowledge that your memory is slowly eroding and that eventually you won’t be able to recognize the people closest to you.

That is the grim reality that Alzheimer’s patients face in Canada.

Unlike illnesses that have primarily physical manifestations, Alzheimer’s is part of a larger group of diseases known as dementia that targets people’s cognitive functions and alters everything that defines who they are as an individual.

Currently, Alzheimer’s affects 15 per cent of Canadians 65 and older and may affect as many as 1.4 million Canadians by 2031. Yet despite its increasing prevalence, there lacks a truly effective treatment for the disease.

This is something that a team of clinicians and neuroscientists at UBC’s Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health is determined to change.

According to Dean Foti, a neurologist and clinical assistant professor, part of the challenge with treating patients with Alzheimer’s is overcoming the many barriers that come with the disease.

“Community programs are limited in many places. Home care support is also limited and can be costly if private care is required,” explained Foti.

Furthermore, gaining access to diagnosis and treatment in a timely manner is an issue faced by many Alzheimer’s patients and their families. This is often compounded by the fact that vital drugs to maintain mental status in those affected by the disease are not covered by provincial programs. This lack of financial support is one of the barriers UBC clinicians and scientists hope to tackle though a clinical trial dubbed the Alzheimer Drug Therapeutic Initiative.

The program seeks to provide greater coverage of Alzheimer’s drugs for those living in BC. These drugs are commonly used to preserve the levels of acetylcholine — a neurotransmitter involved in memory, learning and many other higher-order cognitive functions— in Alzheimer’s patients.

“We monitor how patients do with these medications to determine their benefit and provide guidance to family physicians on their use,” said Foti. However, Foti stresses that Alzheimer’s disease should not be limited to a pharmacological approach and that drugs by themselves do not halt disease progress.

Aerobic exercise is very important for Alzheimer’s patients. Other aspects of care such as following the Mediterranean diet and controlling cardiovascular risk factors may also be beneficial.

For those who would like to learn more about Alzheimer’s, AMS’s All Against Alzheimer’s is a recently created student organization that may have what you are looking for.  

“Our club focuses on raising awareness to the community about mental health and stigmas against mental health with a special emphasis on Alzheimer's disease,” explained Evelyn Chan, and executive of the club.

Chan said her club offers people the opportunity to volunteer at a centre that aims to create a safe space for those affected by mental illness.

For students who may have family members with Alzheimer's, UBC’s Wellness Centre has student volunteers who can provide stress support. In addition, Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health has a dedicated clinic on its second floor, which can provide information to patients and their families about the natural progression of Alzheimer’s and available treatment options.

Finally, students can also check out the UBC neurology website for information about ongoing research projects and additional resources.