Alzheimer's disease has a major impact on the health of Canadians. About 500,000 Canadians suffer from some type of dementia (mental deterioration), and 60% of these have Alzheimer's disease. About 60% of people in long-term care facilities have Alzheimer's disease, and 1 in 5 people with Parkinson's disease will develop it. The US Alzheimer's Society estimates that about $90 billion is spent annually in medical treatment and nursing home care, lost productivity, and early death due to Alzheimer's disease.
There will be over 1 million Canadians living with dementia by the year 2038, largely because the "baby boom" generation (people born between 1946 and 1960) will have reached old age.
We still don't understand exactly how Alzheimer's disease damages the brain. Somehow, cells are damaged and eventually die in different areas of the brain. The damaged areas of the brain contain abnormalities called senile plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. The death of brain cells leads to dementia, characterized by memory loss, impaired judgment, and behavioural changes.
Eventually, the person loses their speech as well as their bladder and bowel control. People with Alzheimer's typically die of infections such as pneumonia or other medical problems. Most people live for about 7 years after diagnosis, but some have lived for up to 20 years.
Each case of Alzheimer's usually affects at least two lives: the person with the condition, and the patient's spouse or child who gradually becomes a full-time caregiver as the disease progresses. Caring for an individual with Alzheimer's can be demanding and stressful. Many caregivers must eventually face the difficult decision of placing their loved one in institutional care.