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Mental illness and dementia

What do mental illness and dementia have in common?

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Mental illnesses (like schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disease) are disorders of the brain. So is dementia.

Disorders of the brain can cause problems in one or more of the brain’s three main functions: how we move, think and feel. In the case of dementia, it is “cognition” - the thinking, knowing, problem-solving and judgement function of our brain - that is primarily affected.

Dementia and other mental illneses share other important similarities:

  • The family doctor is usually the first health-care professional that people see for help.
  • People with dementia often experience depression, a psychiatric condition.
  • People with dementia may face stigma, which involves isolation, disengagement and susceptibility to discrimination.

What causes mental illness and dementia?

We don’t know for sure what causes many of these conditions.

But it seems that mental illnesses, including dementia, tend to arise out of many complex factors:

  • Genetic make-up (what you were born with)
  • Biological (physical) changes in the brain
  • Psychological factors such as problems with coping or self-esteem
  • External social and environmental factors (like isolation).

Can we do anything about it?

Understanding of risk factors and ways to protect the brain is growing.

Risk factors can include high blood pressure, heart disease, history of traumatic brain injury or depression.

To protect the brain, it is important to eat well, exercise and stay socially and mentally active.

Can a person with dementia or other mental illness have good “mental health”?

A person diagnosed with a mental illness can maintain strong mental health. For example, a person with Alzheimer’s can prepare for the disease, develop a reliable support system and participate in meaningful activities to improve mental health and make the journey with dementia easier.

Why should we talk about dementia as a mental illness?

The barriers faced by people with dementia and other disorders of the brain are similar. Talking about dementia as a mental illness:

  • Reduces stigma
  • Unites efforts to advocate for better diagnostic, treatment and support options
  • Gives health-care professionals common focus to improve the behavioural and psychological problems associated with mental illness, including dementia
  • Strengthens the research focus to improve understanding of causes and cure.

We know that education and prevention are critical. Good mental health combined with a physically and socially active lifestyle and a healthy diet helps reduce the risk of dementia and slow its progression in people who are already diagnosed.


Last Updated: 04/10/14
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