Possible link between COVID-19 and dementia topic of talk at Alzheimer's conference

The 11th annual Alzheimer's Awareness Conference will hear about a wide range of topics, including how COVID-19 may affect dementia.  (Shutterstock - image credit)
The 11th annual Alzheimer's Awareness Conference will hear about a wide range of topics, including how COVID-19 may affect dementia. (Shutterstock - image credit)

Not much is known about any possible link between COVID-19 and dementia but there is some data that suggests there could be one, says one Canadian expert on Alzheimer's disease.

Dr. Donald Weaver will deliver the keynote lecture on the subject of COVID-19 and dementia at the annual Alzheimer's Awareness Conference Thursday in Charlottetown.

Weaver runs the Weaver Lab at the University of Toronto, a drug discovery lab whose goal is to find a treatment for Alzheimer's disease and dementia.

"COVID is still a relatively new disease. I know people have heard a lot about it, but I mean, it's only been around for a couple of years and we really haven't had the chance to follow it for a long time," said Weaver.

"But given what we know about COVID and given what we know about dementia, particularly Alzheimer's disease, the warning flag that there may be a relationship between the two has certainly been raised."

Craig Chivers/CBC
Craig Chivers/CBC

In the early days of COVID-19 people thought it was primarily a disease of the lungs, said Weaver.

But as time goes on, there's a realization it's a disease that affects a number of organs, including the brain.

This is not definitively proven. This is a hypothesis, and it's something that we're going to have to watch out for as time unfolds. - Dr. Donald Weaver 

"Lots of people with long COVID talk about the brain fog, talk about long-term headaches ... there's just a lot of neurological or brain things that go along with COVID," said Weaver.

"The inflammation that goes along with this virus and the brain can certainly set it up for long-term consequences and it is possible that dementia could be one of those long-term consequences."

The potential of a link between the two conditions is simply a theory at this point, said Weaver.

"This is not definitively proven. This is a hypothesis, and it's something that we're going to have to watch out for as time unfolds."

 Shutterstock
Shutterstock

There are some estimates dementia rates could double by 2050 — without any more cases from people who had COVID-19.

Weaver said his lab, and many others around the world, are looking at medications that could help.

"We have a lot of optimism that this is going in the right direction and that our understanding of dementia now is so much better than it was even ten years ago," he said.

New caregivers' group

This week's Alzheimer's conference will also feature talks about self-care for caregivers, financial planning, and living with dementia as someone who is LGBTQ2S.

The Alzheimer Society of Prince Edward Island, which is presenting the conference, recently began a new group for caregivers of people under the age of 65 who are living with dementia, said society CEO Jaime Constable.

The onset of dementia looks very different in younger people, said Constable, and sometimes the symptoms are assumed to be mental illness as opposed to a disease of the brain.

"The process can be very difficult for families to determine kind of what's going on when the symptoms are first noticed ... some of them are still working and sometimes the caregiver is also working," she said.

"Sometimes a person with a young-onset diagnosis is still raising children or paying for their adult child to go to university, and sometimes they're caring for an aging parent."

There can also be financial strains.

"The caregiver might have to take time off from work in order to provide the support, and at the same time they're still dealing with mortgages and car payments. So it's much different than somebody who might be already retired and already has the assets to kind of support them through that process," said Constable.

'Great to see people coming together'

The group, which began meeting last summer, has been very popular, said Constable.

"The group has been anywhere from eight to 15 people every month, which is great to see people coming together to get some support," she said.

"With young onset it's often not something that a person's other friends are experiencing. So you tend to see friend groups kind of pull away when there's young-onset dementia."

The 11th Annual Alzheimer's Awareness Conference is being held at Jack Blanchard Hall in Charlottetown on Thursday.