This weekend, my kids wanted to know if Aunt Lyn is mentally ill. It ended up being a great discussion in which we learned a few things.
Mental illness is a medical condition resulting in behavioral or mental patterns which cause an individual to suffer. Mental illness can be debilitating. There is no cure for a mental illness and the individual who has a mental illness must come to recognize their patterns of behavior in order to actively manage it. Mental illness may respond positively to medical treatment as well as counseling. Mental illness covers a wide range of disorders including anxiety, schizophrenia and depression. Autism spectrum disorder and ADHD are also classified as mental illnesses.
On the face of it, Alzheimer's and other dementias seem to fit this classification. They are medical conditions that result in behavioral or mental patterns which cause suffering. They are debilitating and there is no cure. However, they also currently are unable to be treated. Alzheimer's and other dementias are not mental illness. They are brain diseases. The symptoms that seem to fit mental illness are the result of neurodegenerative processes; diseases which are actively destroying neurons.
Mental illness does not cause decay in the brain; brain diseases do. A person can be mentally ill and not have increasing damage to the brain. Mental illness causes differences in perception, processing and behavior while not destroying the brain. Brain diseases destroy the brain and cause differences in perception, processing and behavior along the way.
My kids were able to understand this difference after a few minutes of conversation. It was great to see them making these connections and my eldest had an Ah-Ha moment when the realization struck that ADHD is actually considered a mental illness.
This lead to the question about Lyn's brain damage. Was it mental illness or brain disease? It is neither. Brain damage is an injury to the brain which is often the result of trauma. In Lyn's case, she was born very premature and was deprived of oxygen during birth for significant periods of time. Lyn was also exposed for high doses of antibiotics for an extended period of time immediately after her birth. Any one of these or all three combined could have damaged her brain.
The kids wanted to know if Lyn's brain damage caused her brain disease. I don't believe we'll ever be able to say for sure if the two are related. We know that in individual's with Downs Syndrome, Alzheimer's is much more likely to occur than in the general population. While Lyn does not have Downs Syndrome, it is possible that her intellectual disability could be caused by a genetic mutation which also triggered her Alzheimer's. However, if her intellectual disability truly is the result of damage to the brain which occurred at birth, that does not rule out it being a trigger for her Alzheimer's. Traumatic brain injuries can lead to neurodegenerative processes such as Alzheimer's years after the injury occurs. So, it is entirely possible that her brain damage did result in the Alzheimer's.
I love it when the kids pose questions like these!