'Increased urgency' in dementia research as Canada's population continues to age

Nalini Sen, director of research for the Alzheimer's Society of Canada said huge investments are being made into research and teams are beginning to examine dementia through a "multi-dimensional" approach.

Nation-wide campaign for Alzheimer's Awareness Month aimed at ending stigma

As Canada's population continues to age, researchers are ramping up efforts to better understand dementia.

The fact that seniors outnumber children in Canada for the first time is adding "increased urgency" to dementia research and encouraging a new approach to taking on the disease, according to the Alzheimer Society of Canada.

The 2016 census revealed there are now 5.9 million Canadian seniors, compared to the 5.8 million who are 14 or younger.

That historic leap of people over the age of 65 is a cause for concern for the organization because the rate of people with dementia rises significantly as a person gets older.

Statistics from the Alzheimer society show 1 in 20 people in Canada age 65 have Alzheimer's — and that increases to 1 in 4 by age 85.

The Alzheimer Society of Windsor-Essex is taking part in an awareness campaign aimed at starting conversations and encouraging Canadians to see the disease in a different way. (Alzheimer Society of Windsor-Essex)

Nalini Sen, director of research for the Alzheimer Society of Canada said huge investments are being made into research and teams are beginning to examine dementia through a new, "multi-dimensional" approach.

"You have people working within basic research, biomedical research and others looking at social-psychological research, but they're coming together and willing to ... consider their different perspectives and apply their different approaches to find some answers that perhaps haven't been considered in the past," she explained.

"It's really important for us to consider approaches such as this because it may actually slow or ultimately stop the disease progression."

Eat healthy, sleep well and stay fit

The latest research shows maintaining a proper diet, exercising and challenging your brain by taking on puzzles, new hobbies or creative pursuit can reduce instances of dementia.

Those guidelines can also help those living with the disease.

Judy Field was diagnosed with dementia in 2016. She recently started attending Creative Expressions, a Windsor program that allows people with the disease to explore their creativity.

"The first time I walked in I saw everything in place and I thought, 'Yeah, I'm going to like this,'" she said.

Art Program allows people with dementia to explore their creativity

4 years ago
Duration 0:44
Creative Expressions allows those dealing with dementia to enjoy art. 0:44

Bennett Olczak, CEO of the Alzheimer Society of Windsor and Essex County, said the program is one way those living with various types of dementia can take on fears about the disease.

"This is a safe space where they can express themselves and remain stimulated and part of the community," she explained. "There should be no stigma for people with dementia."

Ending stigma is the goal of the national society's month-long awareness campaign following a survey of 1,500 people age 18-65 that Sen said revealed some "striking" numbers.

  • 46% of people surveyed said they would feel ashamed or embarrassed if they had dementia

  • 61% said they believe they would face discrimination of some kind if they had dementia

  • 30% of Canadians admitted to making dementia-related jokes

  • 25% of Canadians believe friends and family would avoid them if they were diagnosed with dementia

"There's certainly no shame in having dementia," said Sen. "We simply cannot allow negative perceptions in the way of people living with dementia and seeking support."

She added there's a misconception people with dementia are immediately bedridden, when they can often continue to enjoy active lives and relationships.

Another incorrect assumption people make is that only older people can have dementia.

Stephanie Leclair, executive director of the Alzheimer Society Sudbury-Manitoulin, North Bay shows Peter Pinkerton a pamphlet about dementia. The 54-year old Pinkerton was diagnosed last summer with early onset Alzheimer's. (Angela Gemmill/CBC)

"What we're seeing is people in their 40s and 50s are being diagnosed," explained Sen. "So not only is it affecting people who are living with the disease, but in some cases their teenaged children or grandchildren."

Peter Pinkerton was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease a few months before his 54th birthday.

The Sudbury man has been working with the Alzheimer Society of Sudbury-Manitoulin North Bay & Districts and said their programs are helping him stay focused on the present, not what awaits him in the years to come.

"The thing that sticks out in my head is not recognizing my son ... Already, for some of my memories from my mom and dad, I'm losing. I have pictures of them. That helps."

Despite the difficulties faced by those living with dementia, Sen said there is good news.

"I think there's a great deal of hope. We have some extraordinary researchers in the field both in Canada and internationally … and it is going to take an international effort to put an end to this disease."

with files from CBC Politics and Angela Gemmill