About 40 people got an education in Alzheimer’s disease at the Civic Centre on Tuesday — many of them women.

The session, which was led by Alzheimer Society of B.C. support and education co-ordinator Tara Hildebrand, began with the statistic that nearly three-quarters of Canadians with Alzheimer’s disease are women.

Hildebrand said the disease affects women doubly because women also make up 70 per cent of caregivers to those living with the disease.

While there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, Hildebrand said creating awareness around the disease as well as coping strategies for caregivers is a way to make a dementia diagnosis less scary.

“The more we know, the better we do,” she said.

Dementia is the umbrella term for a wide variety of brain diseases, including Alzheimer’s.

Dementia cases fall into two categories: acute, reversible cases and chronic, irreversible cases.

Acute, reversible causes of dementia include tumours, vitamin B-12 deficiency, potassium deficiency, chronic depression and even stress.

Of the chronic, irreversible kinds of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease is the most common diagnosis.

Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 65 per cent of dementia cases, Hildebrand said.

In Alzheimer’s patients, as brain cells degenerate, they become plugged up with sticky beta-amyloid plaque.

This plaque prevents messages from going through clear, unobstructed pathways in the brain, so synapses have to find new ways around the plaque to be understood.

The next thing to be attacked is the hippocampus, which processes new information and distributes it to memory stores in the brain.

Without the hippocampus functioning properly, Alzheimer’s patients can’t take in new information for their short-term memories, but they’re still able to access long-term memories that have already been stored.

It can take anywhere from two to 20 years for the disease to completely manifest.

“The loss of memory with Alzheimer’s disease will be complete and total at some point,” Hildebrand said.

While it’s not known what causes Alzheimer’s disease, Hildebrand said research points to a variety of risk factors that people can manage.

Those include a healthy diet, regular exercise and regularly challenging the brain.

That can be as simple as doing a Sudoku number puzzle or performing simple tasks, such as brushing your teeth, with the opposite hand.

Hildebrand said using the non-dominant hand forces the brain to use new neural connections to send messages and control parts of the body.

However, the biggest risk factor for the disease is one no person can change: aging.

“The fact that we’re getting older, that puts us at a greater risk for sporadic Alzheimer’s disease,” she said.

The risk for Alzheimer’s doubles after age 65 and doubles again every five years.

Five to six per cent of Alzheimer’s diagnoses are early-onset, meaning they occur prior to age 65.

She said the youngest person she’s known with an Alzheimer’s diagnosis was 31 — and pregnant.

Genetics are less likely to be the direct cause of the disease than contain risk factors that can predispose people to it, Hildebrand said.

“The harsh reality is that’s why we don’t have a cure right now — because we don’t have a cause,” she said.

While Hildebrand’s session was intended to help people understand the disease, it had the dual purpose of iterating it’s equally important for caregivers to have care themselves.

Hildebrand said caregivers who try to explain to patients what’s happening in their brains can become frustrated and burnt out.

So, she said, the advice she gives caregivers is to meet the patient where they’re at.

“Self-awareness is the biggest thing Alzheimer’s disease takes early on,” she said. “They have no awareness of where their disease is today.

“Every single minute of every single day, that person is doing the best they can with what they’ve got.”

The session was sponsored by the Merritt and District Hospice Society, which helps people cope with grief and loss of life.

Hospice co-ordinator Jill Sanford told the crowd the organizations’ purposes overlap when it comes to preparing for end of life or arranging power of attorney.

10 warning signs for Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias, provided by the Alzheimer Society of B.C.:

1. Memory loss that affects day-to-day abilities
Forgetting things often or struggling to retain new information.

2. Difficulty performing familiar tasks
Forgetting how to do something you’ve been doing your whole life, such as preparing a meal or getting dressed

3. Problems with language
Forgetting words or substituting words that don’t fit the context.

4. Disorientation in time and space
Not knowing what day of the week it is or getting lost in a familiar place.

5. Impaired judgment
Not recognizing a medical problem that needs attention or wearing light clothing on a cold day.

6. Problems with abstract thinking
Having difficulty balancing a chequebook, for example, or not understanding what numbers are and how they are used.

7. Misplacing things
Putting things in strange places, like a dress in the refrigerator or a wristwatch in the sugar bowl.

8. Changes in mood and behaviour
Exhibiting severe mood swings from being easy-going to quick-tempered.

9. Changes in personality
Behaving out of character, such as becoming confused, suspicious, or fearful.

10. Loss of initiative
Losing interest in friends, family and favourite activities.