Most people have, at one time or another, experienced serious mental and emotional distress. Often it is short lived, and they are able to navigate through each dark period. Yet, for others, preserving good mental health is something that must be worked at constantly. And it isn’t always easy.
For individuals living with dementias, such as Alzheimer’s, mental health issues, such as depression, can be especially challenging because they are being experienced in addition to the cognitive and behavioral changes associated with the disease itself.
First, it’s important to understand that Alzheimer’s is not a form of mental illness.
As Dr. Tam Cummings, noted author and dementia expert notes, Alzheimer’s is a brain disease. An article from North Georgia Clinical Research points to a few differences between mental illness and Alzheimer’s.
- An individual with mental illness may take notice of periodic memory loss and remember once prompted. An individual with Alzheimer’s will experience memory loss and, as the disease progresses, not be aware of it.
- Mental ability can deteriorate quickly with mental illness. Alzheimer’s progresses gradually.
- Verbal and motor skills are not typically impacted with mental illness as they are with Alzheimer’s.
And, yet there may be a link between mental health issues and Alzheimer’s.
A study from Harvard Medical School points to a connection between depression in older individuals and impaired cognition. It found that a state of depression, along with the presence of brain amyloid (a marker for Alzheimer’s) can lead to memory loss. There is hope that clinical trials targeting older individuals with depression who have medical markers for Alzheimer’s can lead to earlier identification and intervention to slow the progression of the disease.
How can individuals living with Alzheimer’s optimize mental health?
Here are a few ideas:
- Play mentally stimulating games. Chess, checkers, Scrabble, Sudoku, and other games requiring concentration are good choices.
- Learn something new. Whether it is a new game or new skill, the act of navigating a new set of actions keeps the brain connected and active.
- Engage in meditation. The deep relaxation of this mental health regimen can help reduce anxiety and restore emotional and mental well-being.
- Reach out for support. It is so important to establish a support network of family and friends who understand the disease and are ready to help. They will be needed as the disease progresses.
Individuals with Alzheimer’s, like all of us, will have good and bad days that impact their mental health and well-being. If you are caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s it is important to arm yourself with information as well as develop your own support system. Mental health is critical to all of us, and that includes caregivers.