Chapter 2: Living with illness and grief
Brain illnesses and their impact
It was difficult to watch him change. We saw changes not only in his physical abilities to care or stand for himself but also in his role in our family and in the community.
They have good days and bad days. We try to take each new day as it comes and make the most of our time together.
There are many types of progressive neurological illnesses, and in general, they are chronic and irreversible. While some treatments can slow progress or help to control symptoms, there is currently no cure for these diseases.
Neurological diseases affect a person’s brain and their whole being. Thinking, emotions, and movement – all things that make us who we are – change dramatically over time. When someone you care about is diagnosed with a progressive illness, it can impact your life too. While not an exhaustive list, here are some examples of common progressive neurological diseases:
Dementia is an overall term for a set of symptoms caused by disorders affecting the brain. Common symptoms include memory loss, difficulties in problem-solving or with language, and changes in mood or behaviour that interfere with a person's ability to perform everyday activities. Some dementias are the result of another neurological disease, such as Huntington’s disease or Parkinson’s disease. A person may have two or more types of dementia, which is called mixed dementia.
For more information about types of dementia, please visit the Alzheimer Society of Canada.
Alzheimer’s disease is a common type of dementia. People with Alzheimer’s experience symptoms of dementia such as memory loss and difficulty performing daily activities. The illness is irreversible and worsens over time, also affecting
judgment, reasoning, behaviour, and emotions.
For more information about Alzheimer’s disease, please visit the Alzheimer
Society of Canada.
Parkinson’s disease occurs when there is a loss of nerve cells in the brain. Because these cells are no longer producing dopamine, physical movement and becomes impaired. Parkinson’s can progress at different rates for different people. Motor symptoms are most common, including slowness of movement and tremor. Other symptoms also appear, such as depression, difficulty swallowing, or cognitive changes. In some families, Parkinson’s can be hereditary.
For more information about Parkinson’s disease, please visit Parkinson Canada.
Huntington’s disease is an inherited brain disorder that impairs people’s abilities and well-being on physical, cognitive, and emotional levels. It affects the brain and nervous system and progresses over time. Because the gene is “dominant,” any child of a parent with Huntington’s disease has a 50 percent chance of inheriting the disease.
For more information about Huntington’s disease, please visit the Huntington Society of Canada.
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, or motor neuron disease) affects the brain’s ability to communicate with the muscles of the body, leading to increasing paralysis. A person with ALS loses the ability to walk, talk, eat, swallow, and eventually breathe. In some families, ALS can be hereditary.
For more information about ALS, please visit ALS Canada.
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic immune system disease that affects the central nervous system including the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerve. As a result, the person may experience symptoms such as changes in vision, memory, balance, and mobility. For some, MS can be progressive with worsening symptoms over time while others experience periods of episodes or flare-ups followed by a period of remission. Symptoms can be unpredictable and can vary in terms of how long they last or how extreme they are.
For more information about MS, please visit the MS Society of Canada.
Some progressive illnesses, such as Huntington’s disease, are hereditary. There are some “familial” variations of other diseases, such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), multiple sclerosis, and Alzheimer’s disease, that put family members at a higher
risk of getting the disease.
For more information about these illnesses and where to find support, please see the Resources section at the end of this module.