Alzheimer’s Disease Is Not a Mental Illness

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by Ray Burow |

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Mental health is an issue that continues to raise concern in the United States. According to an annual report by the nonprofit organization Mental Health America, incidences of anxiety and depression have reached their highest level since the pandemic began last March.

Americans are more isolated today than previously, and isolation, as many caregivers can attest to, leads to loneliness.

Even before the pandemic, loneliness was a significant concern among health professionals. According to the American Psychological Association, a 2018 survey by Cigna found that nearly half of 20,000 adult respondents in the U.S. said they feel alone either some or all of the time. Additionally, 40% said they felt isolated and lacked meaningful relationships.

Perhaps the most startling statistic about mental health is that a large percentage of adults with mental illness aren’t getting the help they need.

Alzheimer’s is a brain disease

People diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease may display similar traits to those with mental illness. However, Alzheimer’s disease is more accurately defined as a brain disease, specifically, a progressive neurodegenerative condition. The American Psychiatric Association describes the brain disorder as “a group of symptoms that lead to a decline in mental function severe enough to disrupt daily life.”

The progression of the various stages of Alzheimer’s leads to memory loss, which affects one’s ability to reason, learn, and make sound decisions. A person with Alzheimer’s can lose the ability to communicate effectively, and eventually, accomplishing simple daily activities becomes an overwhelming challenge.

Alzheimer’s disease is treatable, but not curable. Treating Alzheimer’s disease helps to slow its devastating progression and assists in providing quality of life through the multiple stages of the disease.

Dementia affects both mental and physical health, but it is not strictly defined as mental illness. Unlike mental illness, dementia is a disease that primarily affects seniors. Mental illness is nondiscriminatory and can be prevalent at any age. Yet while it differs from dementia, one in three seniors suffers from mental illness.

Reading the signs of mental illness

If you or a senior adult within your care is exhibiting behavioral changes that are unrelated to the normal process of aging, seek help.

Some symptoms associated with dementia are similar to those displayed when mental illness is present. Signs of mental illness might include bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, or extreme anxiety. It is crucial to be diagnosed by a health professional who specializes in brain disorders to wade through and separate symptoms into the correct diagnostic category.

See your primary care provider and explain the symptoms you’re observing. Request a referral to a neurologist, who will diagnose whether your issues stem from dementia, or if mental illness is present. Diagnosis is key to treating either condition.

Common denominator

Denial and stigma are two common denominators in mental illness and dementia. Each impedes the process of seeking and receiving help. Family members who deny changes taking place with a loved one, or an individual who denies changes in themselves, will only extend the inevitable.

Dementia doesn’t go away, and neither will mental illness of its own accord. Without diagnosis and treatment, the weight of either will come to bear, and the toll is heavy and exacting.

According to a 2013 article published in Administration and Policy in Mental Health, “Public stigma is a pervasive barrier that prevents many individuals in the U.S. from engaging in mental health care.”

The article notes that public stigma is “a set of negative attitudes and beliefs that motivate individuals to fear, reject, avoid, and discriminate against people with mental illness.” That says it all, doesn’t it? Stigma is driven by fear.

We must remove the stigma that plagues health issues affecting the brain. Erasing societal stigmas surrounding brain disorders and mental illness begins at home.

True, it is an issue in this country that needs to be addressed on a large scale, but first comes an individual shift. We must stop viewing and treating cognitive disorders as dirty little secrets, like skeletons in our families’ closets.

Please seek help if needed, and help to champion greater awareness of the issue.

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Note: Alzheimer’s News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Alzheimer’s News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to Alzheimer’s disease.

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