New advances for Alzheimer's treatment

September marks World Alzheimer’s Month and this year, the Alzheimer’s community is facing more profound challenges than ever.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than 747,000 Canadians are living with Alzheimer’s or another dementia.

Alzheimer’s — the most common cause of dementia — is a chronic, progressive, neurodegenerative disease that affects memory, language, behaviour and thinking abilities, severe enough to interfere with daily life.

Alzheimers patients are particularly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic due to the significant and prolonged changes to their daily routine, according to Dr. Blake Pearson, an Ontario-based physician with extensive experience caring for individuals with dementia.

Dr. Blake Pearson“Routine, structure and seeing familiar faces are all essential in managing dementia symptoms. Individuals living with dementia are feeling the stress of their current environment just like everyone else, but depending on the progression of their condition, their feelings can manifest in very strong and stressful ways for both themselves and their caregivers,” says Dr. Pearson.

“Extreme agitation, poor sleep, repetitive calling out for help, tearfulness, anxiety and becoming verbally — and even physically — aggressive with caregivers, are all symptoms I’ve seen increase over the last several months in both my out-patients and long-term care patients.”

There is currently no known cure for Alzheimer’s and no treatments proven to slow or reverse the progression of the disease. However, there are ways to manage symptoms.

Current pharmaceutical therapies, including antipsychotic medications, may provide some reduction in behavioural symptoms but carry an increased risk of severe side-effects including stroke and death. As a result, more families are proactively asking for safer alternatives, says Pearson.

There is an increasing body of quality evidence for the use of medical cannabis in the treatment of behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia and researchers have observed improvements in aggression, agitation, irritability, delusions, depression, appetite, sleep and caregiver distress.

“Due to its excellent safety-profile and multimodal properties, medical cannabis is a very reasonable  option in the treatment of dementia's symptoms,” says Dr. Pearson. “Clinically, we have seen positive outcomes including calmer moods, fewer delusions, better sleep, improved appetite, and less fall risk. An added benefit is that medical cannabis can often treat more than one symptom at a time: This may allow physicians to wean other medications and decrease the side-effect risk associated with polypharmacy, which happens to be the number one cause of hospitalizations amongst seniors.”

To learn more about supporting loved ones living with dementia, visit Dr. Pearson’s website to watch Webisode Six of his Lockdown Learning Series on-demand. He has also compiled additional dementia support resources which are free to download.