Health and Wellness

All your Alzheimer’s disease questions answered

Learn about symptoms, diagnosis and support options for Alzheimer’s, the most common type of dementia.

A close-up of a senior woman and young adult holding hands.

If you or someone you love has recently been diagnosed as one of the over 500,000 Canadians with Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia, you’re probably looking for as much information as possible. You’ll find answers to all your Alzheimer’s disease questions here, including definitions, signs, symptoms and stages of Alzheimer’s, the difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia, diagnosis and treatment options, and how to support someone with the disease. What may be most important to know, however, is that there are many things that seniors with Alzheimer’s disease can do to live healthy, full and meaningful lives.

“It can be scary when people hear that they or a loved one has Alzheimer's disease —because it is such a life changing experience — but there are many amazing programs available,” says Laura Casey, the Memory Care Coordinator at Amica Georgetown. “At Amica, our teams are all trained in Memory Care, and we have an in-depth discovery process to learn each resident’s interests and history. That way we can offer brain- and memory-stimulating activities that engage them fully, from outings to music or pet therapy. We’ll take a former farmer to visit animals at a barn, for instance, or organize horticultural therapy for a resident who loved gardening at home.”

According to the Alzheimer Society of Canada, Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive and irreversible neurodegenerative disease that damages or kills brain cells, impacting your ability to think and remember. Unlike occasional memory lapses, it’s not a normal part of aging. One in 20 Canadians over 65 have Alzheimer’s disease, while one in four Canadians over 85 have it.

What is the difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia? 

Dementia is an overarching term for certain brain disorder symptoms, such as loss of memory, judgment and language. Alzheimer’s disease is actually a type of dementia, in addition to vascular dementia, frontotemporal dementia, Lewy body disease, mixed dementia and Korsakoff dementia. Yet 60 to 80 percent of dementia diagnoses are caused by Alzheimer’s disease.

What are the signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease?

Alzheimer’s is a progressive condition, so symptoms and signs vary from person to person and differ between stages, as follows:

Signs of early stage or mild Alzheimer’s disease

  • Repeating questions;
  • Memory loss;
  • Taking longer or having trouble with normal tasks;
  • Poor judgment;
  • Personality and mood changes;
  • Wandering or getting lost; and
  • Losing or misplacing things.

Signs of middle stage or moderate Alzheimer’s disease

  • Confusion, increased memory loss and difficulty recognizing family or friends;
  • Challenges with language and numbers;
  • Difficulty with getting dressed and other multistep tasks;
  • Agitation, anxiety and inappropriate anger or impulsive behaviours;
  • Paranoia, delusions and hallucinations; and
  • Repetitive statements, movements or twitches.

Some signs of late stage or severe Alzheimer’s disease

  • Completely dependent on care;
  • Sleeping more and increasingly bedbound;
  • Difficulty communicating and swallowing;
  • Weight loss;
  • Bladder and bowel incontinence;
  • Skin infections;
  • Grunting, moaning or groaning; and
  • Seizures.

Learn more about the five key signs of dementia and the steps to take after a dementia diagnosis in our Memory Care Guide.

Is there an Alzheimer’s disease test?

No. If you want to find out whether you or a loved one has Alzheimer’s disease, it requires multiple steps rather than a single test. Experts will make an Alzheimer’s diagnosis using several approaches, such as a physical exam and blood tests to rule out other illnesses, mental and/or psychological exams and brain scans. Download the “Getting a diagnosis toolkit” from the Alzheimer Society of Canada to find out more.

What causes Alzheimer’s disease?

People often wonder whether Alzheimer’s disease is hereditary, yet only two to five percent of cases are familial or inherited. It’s still unclear what causes Alzheimer’s, though scientists suspect that a mix of lifestyle, environmental and genetic factors and age-related brain changes combine to increase amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles in the brain. These damage and kill brain cells. (People with Alzheimer’s have many more plaques and tangles than healthy people.) Researchers are also investigating whether dormant viruses that cause chickenpox, shingles and herpes may also play a role in Alzheimer’s risk.

What is early onset Alzheimer’s disease?

Also known as younger onset Alzheimer’s, this rare condition impacts people between 30 to 65 years of age.

What about Alzheimer’s disease prevention?

There is no certain way to prevent Alzheimer’s disease, and there are only some risk factors that you can control. For instance, you can’t do anything about factors that increase your risk, such as being female, over 65 or having a condition such as multiple sclerosis, Down syndrome or Parkinson’s disease. There are risk factors that you can control, however, which are linked to about 40 percent of dementia cases.

How can I reduce my Alzheimer’s disease risk?

Physical exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, staying social, playing mentally challenging games, quitting smoking and getting 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night are a few ways to lower your likelihood of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Read Activities to reduce dementia risk to get more tips on preventing cognitive decline.

Which treatment options are available for Alzheimer’s disease?

There is no cure for Alzheimer’s or the cognitive decline that it causes, however there are medications and therapies to help manage symptoms and enhance quality of life. For example, some medicines can improve memory and thinking ability while others help alleviate anxiety. Exercise, music therapy, art and other pursuits can also be beneficial — learn why in our article, Why people with dementia need activities.

How can you help a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease?

Getting a dementia diagnosis can be emotional for seniors and their families, but with the right supports, older adults with Alzheimer’s can continue to enjoy a good life. Some ways that you can help include:

  • Assisting them through the diagnostic and treatment journey;
  • Getting support from your local dementia society;
  • Creating routines and safety plans;
  • Being respectful and celebrating your loved one’s strengths while assisting with challenges;
  • Talking candidly about the need for Power of Attorney documents while they still have the mental capacity to sign them; and
  • Recognizing and acting when your loved one needs more professional care.

Organizing activities that help seniors relive parts of their past can be also very comforting for those with Alzheimer’s, says Casey. “Even if they can’t remember certain things, seniors with dementia will start to sing and dance to old songs, for example, which lifts them up. At Amica we also create My Life Story boxes with photos and mementoes for each Memory Care resident, which spark memories and conversations.”

Finally, learn as much as you can about Alzheimer’s disease in the following resources:

Understanding how Alzheimer’s disease progresses and how to support a loved one can go a long way, but you may still need support or care if you find yourself experiencing signs of caregiver burnout such as stress, frustration and exhaustion. While caring for a parent or spouse with Alzheimer’s at home may seem ideal at first, in time you may find that premium senior living offers more safety, enrichment and professional care, along with a great lifestyle, camaraderie and empowering activities.

Book a virtual or in-person tour to find out what it’s like to enjoy living on your own terms in an elegant Amica residence with outstanding dining, amenities, activities, best-in-class Memory Care and safety measures.