Alzheimer’s Disease and Addiction Treatment

When a loved one begins exhibiting symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, it is common to feel a sense of powerlessness, fear, and loss as the cognitive and emotional effects of the disease rob you of the person you once knew. Learning about the illness and reframing your relationship to accommodate the new challenges it presents can go a long way toward helping both of you through the difficult times ahead. But when your loved one is also struggling with drug addiction, both treatment and your relationship become more complicated.

Memory, Mood, and Behavioral Disturbances


Alzheimer’s is a degenerative brain disease that causes cognitive, mood, and behavioral problems that increase in severity over time. While the illness generally emerges in those 65 and over, it is not a normal part of aging, nor does it only affect seniors; up to 5% of people with Alzheimer’s begin exhibiting symptoms in their 40s and 50s. As a progressive disease, the memory loss, language problems, behavioral disturbances, and mood symptoms that characterize the illness intensify as a person ages, severely diminishing quality of life and eventually prohibiting self-sufficiency. For loved ones, this functional decline can be painful to witness, and you may find yourself taking on a caretaking role as your family member loses the ability to function independently.

Although researchers now understand how Alzheimer’s deteriorates brain cell function, the causes of this failure remain unclear. What is known, however, is that that family history, genetics, and environmental factors all appear to play a part in the development of the disease.

Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease


The signs of Alzheimer’s typically emerge slowly and are often initially brushed off as normal age-related cognitive decline or momentary memory lapses. Over time, however, these symptoms increase in frequency and severity and come to include:

  • Memory loss
  • Language difficulties, including problems composing coherent sentences, remembering words, and understanding others.
  • Impaired problem-solving and planning abilities.
  • Mood swings, anger, and aggression
  • Delusions and hallucinations
  • Coordination problems

Alzheimer’s is more common in women than in men, which many researchers attribute to the fact that women live longer. People with Down syndrome, mild cognitive impairment, past head trauma, and low education levels are at increased risk.

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Alzheimer’s Disease and Addiction


It can be difficult to talk about addiction at any time, but particularly when your loved one is older. You may fear insulting them, or may try to minimize their use by convincing yourself that someone of their age isn’t at risk for addiction. When your loved one has Alzheimer’s it can be especially hard to either confront them about their drug use or believe it is happening in the first place. The truth is that Alzheimer’s and drug addiction can and do co-occur, and voicing your concerns can be instrumental in helping your family member get the help they need.

Research shows that drug use is increasing amongst seniors, and those with Alzheimer’s are disproportionately affected for a number of complex and often overlapping reasons. According to some research, drug use can itself increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Symptoms of the illness also may cause your loved one to seek refuge in drugs or alcohol in an attempt to cope with their pain and confusion, either intensifying existing addiction or sparking the beginning of a new addiction. Simultaneously, the impaired judgment and diminished self-control associated with Alzheimer’s can increase the propensity for risk-taking and compromise your loved one’s ability to self-limit or engage in risk-reduction strategies. If your family member’s drug addiction precedes their Alzheimer’s, the disease may help them keep their struggle with drugs hidden as the telltale signs of addiction are disguised as symptoms of Alzheimer’s.

Dual Diagnosis Treatment


While there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, there are a number of treatments available to help temporarily control and minimize symptoms. When someone is experiencing a co-occurring drug addiction, however, dual diagnosis treatment is essential to ensuring that the full scope of your loved one’s needs are met for the best possible outcomes.

Dual diagnosis treatment is designed to address the complex needs of people struggling with addiction and other health conditions simultaneously. For people with Alzheimer’s, this process begins with an in-depth psychological assessment to determine the nature of each person’s symptoms, separate the signs of Alzheimer’s from the signs of addiction, and get a complex picture of emotional, behavioral, and cognitive health. In doing so, you can be assured that your loved one is getting the appropriate treatment for each part of the equation while also providing opportunities for better understanding how their Alzheimer’s and drug addiction relate to each other. The path to healing will be different for each person, but most effective therapeutic modalities for people who are experiencing both Alzheimer’s and addiction include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
  • Psychodynamic Therapy
  • Experiential Therapy
  • Holistic Therapies
  • 12-step support groups

Pharmacological therapies may also be used to alleviate mood symptoms, correct sleep disturbances, or diminish hallucinatory or delusional episodes. It is imperative that your loved one connects with a psychiatrist with the training and experience to provide safe and effective treatment that takes into account the unique challenges faced by people with Alzheimer’s.

Dual diagnosis treatment provides a secure and welcoming place for your loved one to explore their addiction and its relationship to their Alzheimer’s with the guidance of compassionate and knowledgable clinicians. In doing so, they can come to reach greater levels of self-awareness and gain the skills necessary to live a healthier, more fulfilling life without the use of harmful substances. Treatment should include a focus on strategies to help your loved one engage in self-care and nurture their ability to cope with the cognitive, behavioral, and emotional changes brought about by Alzheimer’s in a way that feels meaningful and empowering.

Because both addiction and Alzheimer’s can have a great impact on families, seeking out a treatment facility that offers specialized family programming is often an essential part of the recovery process. These programs work with you to help you better understand what is happening to your loved one while also deepening your understanding of yourself and your own needs through these difficult times. With the support of clinicians who recognize your unique struggles, you can develop strategies to buoy yourself psychologically while also formulating your role in your loved one’s continuing care to create a strong foundation of emotional and practical support that will enhance quality of life for each member of your family.

If you would like more information about drug addiction and Alzheimer’s disease, or have any questions about dual diagnosis treatment, we encourage you to contact us at any time. We are always available to offer support and guidance to help your loved one find the help they need to create freedom from addiction and nourish their mind, body, and spirit.