Health Topics (A-Z)

Understanding aging and the brain
Health information

Health Topics (A-Z)

This section gives descriptions of various health-related conditions. Please click on any of the topics below for more information.

Health Conditions Index


The main feature of Agoraphobia is anxiety about being in places or situations from which escape might be difficult (or embarrassing) or in which help may not be available if the anxiety becomes overwhelming.

The anxiety typically leads to an avoidance of a variety of situations that may include being alone outside the home or being home alone; being in a crowd of people; traveling in a car, bus or airplane; or being on a bridge or in an elevator.

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Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, accounts for 64% of all dementias in Canada.
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive, degenerative disease of the brain, which causes thinking and memory to become seriously impaired. The result is changes in abilities and/or behaviour. At present, once an ability is lost, it is not known to return. However, research is now suggesting that some relearning may be possible.

The symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease include:

  • a gradual onset and continuing decline of memory
  • changes in judgement or reasoning
  • changes in mood and behaviour
  • the inability to perform familiar tasks

These signs may affect a person’s ability to function at work, in social relationships or in day-to-day activities.

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Anxiety is best described as a state of fear and worry that something unpleasant is about to happen. It is often accompanied by a range of physical symptoms which are, in themselves, very frightening.
Sometimes people experiencing these symptoms believe that they are going to die from a heart attack or go crazy.

Anxiety can be specific to certain situations (such as social events, crowded places, or public transport) or it can be a general state of worry.

Some of the common symptoms of anxiety include: fearfulness; sweating; shaking or trembling; excessive worry; feeling restless; muscle tension; and physical disorders such as stomach upsets and/or aches and pains.

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Arthritis literally means joint inflammation but is often used to indicate a group of more than 100 rheumatic diseases. These diseases can affect not only the joints but also muscles, tendons, and ligaments as well as the skin and certain internal organs.


  • Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis.
  • It affects 3,000,000 (1 in 10) Canadians.
  • It affects men and women in equal numbers.
  • Most people develop osteoarthritis after the age of 45, but it can occur at any age.

Osteoarthritis is caused by the breakdown of cartilage. Cartilage is the tough elastic material that covers and protects the ends of bones. Cartilage acts as a shock absorber when you put weight on the joint. Bits of cartilage may break off and cause pain and swelling in the joint between bones. This pain and swelling is called inflammation.

Over time the cartilage may wear away entirely, and the bones will rub together.

Osteoarthritis can affect any joint but usually affects hips, knees, hands and spine.

Symptoms of OA usually come on slowly, and involve the area around the joints. If you have joint pain, stiffness or swelling for more than two weeks visit your family doctor.

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Bipolar Disorder

Everyone has ups and downs in mood. Feeling happy at times and sad and angry at other times.

Bipolar disorder, or manic-depressive illness, is a serious medical condition that causes people to have extreme mood swings. These swings affect how people think, behave and function.

Bipolar disorder typically consists of three states:

  • a high or agitated state, called “mania”
  • a low state, called “depression”
  • a well state, during which many people feel normal and function well

One or two per cent of adults have bipolar disorder. Men and women are affected equally.

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There are many positive things about growing older. However, people often feel sad and blue about some of the more negative changes or losses in life that happen as we age. Some of those feelings are normal, as long as they do not last for too long, or start to take over a person’s life.

Depression is a mood disorder that has a number of signs that can include feelings of sadness, anxiety (worrying), low self-esteem, hopelessness, sleeping too much or too little, loss of energy and other signs that last for two weeks or more.

Depression can be caused by a combination of distressing life events, a biochemical imbalance in the brain, psychological factors related to thinking styles, like a habit of noticing the negative things in life, and a family history of the problem.

The course of a depression can last weeks or years, but it is rarely permanent. It is important to get a good assessment and treatment. Having an untreated depression for a long time can have harmful effects on a person’s general health.

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Dysthymic Disorder

Dysthymic Disorder is a mood disorder which continues over a two-year period, characterized by a majority of days of feeling down or sad.

These feelings are less intense than major depression but they still disrupt everyday life.

Some of the symptoms of dysthymic disorder include:

  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Impairment in cognitive functioning including a hard time concentrating or making decisions
  • Loss of appetite or overeating
  • Low levels of energy
  • Low self-esteem
  • Problems with sleep

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Frontotemporal Dementia

Frontotemporal dementia is a progressive dementia that affects specific areas of the brain — the frontal and temporal lobes.

Core symptoms of frontotemporal dementia include:

  • changes in personality and behaviour
  • problems with speech and language

Although frontotemporal dementia can arise any time during adult life, most affected individuals are between 50-60 years of age.

Frontotemporal dementia is also known as: Pick’s disease, frontal lobe dementia, primary progressive aphasia, corticobasal degeneration and Pick’s complex.

Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD) gets its name from the parts of the brain that it affects. The frontal and temporal lobes are areas of the brain that help us maintain a consistent personality, set of behaviours and manage speech and language.

Did you know that?

  1. Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD) disables people in their 50’s while they are still part of the workforce and actively parenting.
  2. FTD is often mistaken as an extreme case of ‘midlife crisis’ and can lead to divorce instead of medical attention.
  3. Persons with FTD may adopt new eating rituals that can result in obesity or even choking during an attempt to ingest non-food items.
  4. Expected survival in FTD is shorter than in Alzheimer’s disease.
  5. There is currently no known cure for FTD and there are no treatments specific to FTD.
  6. The most exciting dementia research of 2006 identified a genetic mutation and resulting protein accumulation that may explain a large number of FTD cases which may, in turn, lead to a specific treatment for FTD.
  7. Frontotemporal Dementia is also known as: Pick’s disease, frontal lobe dementia, primary progressive aphasia, corticobasal degeneration and Pick’s complex.
  8. Have your doctor contact 416-785-2444 to make a referral to see our behavioural neurologists specializing in care of FTD.
  9. Not all dementia is Alzheimer’s disease.
  10. Baycrest offers specialized programming in the Community Day Centre for clients with frontotemporal dementia and frontal lobe disturbance. The program is in collaboration with Baycrest’s Brain Health Centre Clinics and operates Monday to Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. as part of the Samuel Lunenfeld Mountainview Club. Roundtrip escorted transportation is available within a catchment area and lunch and snacks are provided all within a safe and secure environment. The program offers tailor-made group activities for earlier onset dementia; specialized programming and environmental supports to meet individual needs; group and one-to-one activities; behaviour management techniques; access to health and medical specialists bi-monthly Brain Health Clinic team rounds to enhance quality of care for clients and FTD support/education groups for caregivers.

    Referrals are being accepted. There is no age restriction, but clients must meet eligibility criteria. Space in the program is limited.

    For more information about this program please contact Senior Counselling and Referral at 416-785-2500 ext. 2223.

    Baycrest has a clinic that specializes in FTD and provides support resources for caregivers and is conducting clinical trials. Have your doctor contact 416-785-2444 to make a referral to see our behavioural neurologists specializing in care of FTD.

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Hemorrhagic Stroke

What is it?
Hemorrhagic stroke occurs when a diseased blood vessel within the brain bursts, allowing blood to leak inside the brain. The sudden increase in pressure within the brain can cause damage to the brain cells surrounding the blood. If the amount of blood increases rapidly, the sudden pressure can lead to unconsciousness or death.

What causes it?

The most common cause of hemorrhagic stroke is high blood pressure (hypertension). Less common causes include trauma, infections, tumors, blood clotting deficiencies, and abnormalities in blood vessels.

Who gets it?
Hemorrhage stroke occurs at all ages. The average age is lower than for ischemic stroke. Hemorrhagic strokes make up about 20% of all strokes.

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Influenza (flu)

What is Influenza?

  • An acute viral disease
  • Highly infectious
  • Occurs globally and is seasonal
  • The virus changes every season

What are the Symptoms of Influenza:

  • High fever (lasting 3 – 4 days), chills
  • Cough, sneezing, runny nose, sore throat
  • Myalgia (severe aching muscles and pain)
  • Severe fatigue and weakness (lasting a few weeks), headache
  • Complications: bronchitis, pneumonia, heart or kidney failure – often bed-ridden

Flu Shot Info:
The best way to protect yourself and your loved ones against the flu is by getting a flu shot. Please speak to your family physician about getting your flu shot annually.

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Ischemic Stroke

Ischemic stroke occurs when an artery to the brain is blocked. The brain depends on its arteries to bring fresh blood from the heart and lungs.

These blockages are caused by: a problem with the blood vessels, a problem with the blood itself or by clots from the heart.

If the artery remains blocked for more than a few minutes, the brain cells may die. This is why immediate medical treatment is absolutely critical.

About 80% of strokes are Ischemic Strokes.

For more information about stroke prevention, warning signs and treatments, please click here.

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Lewy Body Dementia

Lewy body dementia is a common cause of dementia in the elderly.

Core symptoms of Lewy body dementia include:

  • Progressive changes in cognition including problems with attention and executive function.
  • Prominent memory impairment may not be evident in the early stages.
  • Fluctuating cognition with pronounced variations in attention and alertness
  • Parkinson’s-like symptoms
  • Recurrent visual hallucinations, typically well formed and detailed

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Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Obsessive compulsive disorder is characterized by repeated, intrusive, and unwanted thoughts (called obsessions) and/or rituals that seem impossible to control (called compulsions).

These thoughts may be unrelated to what the person may be currently doing, and are often distasteful, violent or frightening to the person. Most people with obsessive compulsive disorder know that the rituals are not necessary or helpful, but they can’t seem to stop themselves.

Examples of compulsive, repetitive behaviors include hand washing, ordering or checking; or mental acts such as counting or repeating words.

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‘Osteo’ means bone, and ‘porosis’ means thinning or becoming more porous, so osteoporosis literally means ‘thinning of bone.’

It is commonly confused with the word osteoarthritis, which is a form of arthritis that results in breakdown of the cartilage covering the ends of bones. In contrast, osteoporosis is a condition where bone itself breaks down. Bones then become thin, brittle and easily broken. For example, sneezing can cause a person’s rib to break or stumbling can lead to fracture of one of the bones in the spine.

  • Osteoporosis affects over 800,000 (1 in 37) Canadians
  • Women develop osteoporosis four times more often than men
  • It usually appears in people after age 40

The bones most commonly affected by osteoporosis are those in the hip, wrist and back, particularly those in the mid-back. As vertebrae become thin, they are prone to collapse from relatively minor forces. Usually the fronts of the vertebrae break, leading to a state called wedging, which causes a person to stoop forward and develop a hump-like deformity on the upper spine. Those people who do not develop wedging may notice a progressive loss of height as bone collapse occurs.

Hip fractures are also common in people with osteoporosis, and can lead to immobility and hospitalization.

If you have osteoporosis there may be a long period of time, perhaps many years, during which you have no symptoms while your bones are becoming gradually thinner. Most people are diagnosed with osteoporosis after having sharp pain in the mid to low back that seems to have come on for no reason. Others experience fractures of the bone in the thigh, hipbone, or the lower arm bone above the wrist during what seems like relatively minor falls or accidents.

There are a number of factors that can lead to osteoporosis.

  • Bone loss will occur naturally as you get older.
  • Some people with osteoporosis have other family members with it. A higher risk of getting osteoporosis may be passed along through the family.
  • Bones need exercise to stay strong. If you do not exercise you may increase your risk of osteoporosis.
  • Changes in hormone levels can also cause osteoporosis.
  • Not eating foods rich in calcium, vitamin D and phosphorous can also cause bone loss.
  • Drinking too much alcohol, smoking or having too much caffeine can cause bone loss.
  • Some medicines can stop your body from absorbing calcium. This may cause your bones to weaken.
  • Other illnesses or diseases, such as over-active thyroid, diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis may also cause bone loss.

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Parkinson’s Disease

Parkinson’s is a neurodegenerative disease. Movement is normally controlled by dopamine, a chemical that carries signals between the nerves in the brain. When cells that normally produce dopamine die, the symptoms of Parkinson’s appear. The most common symptoms are:

  • Tremor
  • Slowness and stiffness
  • Impaired balance
  • Rigidity of the muscles

Other symptoms can also occur in some people:

  • Fatigue
  • Soft speech
  • Problems with handwriting
  • Stooped posture
  • Constipation
  • Sleep disturbances

Currently there is no cure. You can live with Parkinson’s for years. The symptoms are treated with medication. Some people with Parkinson’s may benefit from surgery. The following therapies can also help manage the symptoms:

  • Physical therapy helps mobility, flexibility and balance
  • Occupational therapy helps with daily activities
  • Speech therapy helps with voice control
  • Exercise helps muscles and joints and improves overall health and well-being

Parkinson’s can progress at a different rate for each person. As symptoms change, medication will need to be adjusted. As the disease progresses, non-motor symptoms may also appear, such as depression, difficulty swallowing, sexual problems or cognitive changes. It is important to find a doctor who is knowledgeable about Parkinson’s, ideally a neurologist. By working with a health-care team, a treatment plan can be created that will meet the person’s individual needs.

Description taken from the Parkinson Society of Canada.

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Phobias involve persistent fear and anxiety as a result or in response to a specific event, situation or object.

A phobia is only considered a disorder’ when it keeps someone from functioning in everyday life. Some examples include fear of flying, animals, heights, etc.

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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post-traumatic stress is often the result of a physically or emotionally traumatic experience, where the person experienced harm, saw others experience harm, or felt threatened (such as rape, child abuse, war, being in a concentration camp or natural disaster).

This event is relived through persistent frightening thoughts, flashbacks, dreams and memories.

People with PTSD often express considerable anger or are irritable, and they may become withdrawn or emotionally distant, and avoid any event that reminds them of the trauma.

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A stroke occurs because blood flow to part of the brain is interrupted, either by a clot or a bleed within the brain. A small part of the brain then dies because of this lack of blood flow.

There are three different types of stroke:

  • Ischemic Stroke
  • Hemorrhagic Stroke
  • Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA)

For more detailed information on the specific types of stroke mentioned, click the link above or the Health Topic Index on the left.

Common Problems After a Stroke

Depending on where the stroke happens in the brain, different problems can occur.

Some of the problems following a stroke may include:

  • Speech problems making communication difficult
  • Sensory changes making it difficult to feel touch, pressure and smell
  • Cognitive difficulties affecting perception, thinking and planning
  • Emotional changes and personality changes which can create behavior changes
  • Motor problems such as swallowing difficulties or weakness on one side of the body

Signs of a Stroke

Signs that you may be having a stroke are:

  • Sudden weakness, numbness or tingling in the face, arm or leg
  • Sudden loss of speech or trouble understanding speech
  • Sudden loss of vision or double vision
  • Sudden sever and unusual headache
  • Sudden loss of balance, especially with any of the other above signs

CALL 911 if you think that you or a loved one is having a stroke.

Stroke Prevention

In order to prevent another stroke, the cause of your stroke needs to be identified and treated.

For example, the cause of an Ischemic stroke could be a problem with the blood vessels in the neck (carotid arteries), a problem with the blood itself or a problem with the heart.

Risk factors for stroke also need to be identified and treated. There are two types of risk factors: those that you can control and those that you cannot control.

Risk Factors You Can Control

Some of the risk factors you can change include:

  • High blood pressure (This is the most important modifiable risk factor.)
  • Diabetes
  • Smoking
  • High blood lipids (fats)
  • Heart disease
  • Inactivity
  • Excessive alcohol consumption

Risk Factors You Can’t Control

Some of the uncontrollable risk factors include:

  • Age – over 65
  • Gender – men have a higher risk
  • Ethnicity – Canadians of First Nations/Aboriginal Peoples, African, Hispanic, South Asian and
  • Black descent are at higher risk
  • Family History – if you have a parent or sibling who had a stroke before the age of 65
  • Prior Stroke or TIA – if you have had a stroke or mini-stroke in the past five years

Possible Treatment

Treatments after a stroke concentrate on rehabilitation, by helping you learn to do things in a different way, and on stroke prevention by way of education and medications. Rehabilitation
Strokes cause parts of the brain to slow down and in some cases even stop working.


Rehabilitation after stroke involves helping the brain to re-wire itself.

Rehabilitation also involves training to enable people with stroke to do what they want to do and need to do even though it may be done in a different way.

Rehabilitation involves skilled therapists, motivated clients, and lots of practice.

Medications for Stroke

There are several types of medications which may be prescribed depending on what caused the stroke and what risk factors you have.

Thrombolytic Therapy

In the ACUTE stage, if the stroke is caused by a blood clot, medication called T-PA can be given within three hours of the onset of the stroke to help dissolve the clot and restore some blood flow to the affected area of the brain.

In this case, you should call 911 as quickly as possilbe – to get to the hospital quickly.

It is therefore very important to know the signs of stroke so you can seek immediate attention. Click on the link to the right to read about the signs of stroke.

Anticoagulant and Antiplatelet Drugs

Medications used to prevent other strokes from occurring include: anti-platelet medications, such as aspirin, which makes blood less sticky and anticoagulants which are blood thinners.

Examples of these medications include:

  • ASA (Aspirin)
  • Aggrenox
  • Plavix
  • Coumadin (Warfarin)


If you have high blood pressure, the physician may prescribe drugs that lower high blood pressure, also known as anti-hypertensives.

These medications protect the blood vessels against injury that could cause another stroke.

There are many different medications for high blood pressure.

Lipid lowering medications

If you have high cholesterol, the physician may prescribe medications that lower your cholesterol level.

Common medications for high lipids or cholesterol are:

  • Zocor
  • Lipitor
  • Cresto

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Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA)

A TIA is sometimes wrongly referred to as a mini-stroke.

It is not a stroke but is a warning sign that someone is at risk for having a larger stroke.

TIAs do not cause permanent damage because they only cause temporary stoppage of blood flow to an area of the brain that is momentarily starved, but is not permanently damaged.

Signs of a TIA are:

  • slurred speech
  • vision disturbances
  • limb weakness that resolves soon after

For more information about stroke prevention, warning signs and treatments, please click here.

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Vascular Dementia

Vascular dementia is a result of a single or multiple strokes.

A stroke is an area of damaged brain caused by a loss of blood flow or a bleed. Strokes can be large or small and can have a cumulative effect (each stroke adding further to the problem).

Strokes may alter the person’s ability to walk, cause weakness in an arm or leg, slurred speech or emotional outbursts.

For more information about stroke prevention, warning signs and treatments, please click here.

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West Nile Virus

What are the symptoms of West Nile Virus (WNv)?

Symptoms of WNv may range from mild illness to serious neurological illness such as encephalitis (inflammation of the brain). Research shows that four out of five people who are bitten by an infected mosquito do not show any symptoms of the virus at all. Other common symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Muscle weakness
  • Stiff neck
  • Confusion
  • Severe headache
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Extreme swelling or infection at the site of the mosquito bite

Who is at risk?
People who are active and outside during the summer months are at risk of WNv infection.

Those with weaker immune systems, including those over 40 years of age and individuals who suffer from chronic diseases may be at greater risk for serious health implications.

How is the virus spread?

WNv is spread from infected mosquitoes to humans. It is not spread through direct contact from one person to another.

How can I protect myself from WNv?

  • WNv is an illness that is contracted by mosquitoes when they bite infected birds. The virus can spread from infected mosquitoes to humans, birds and other mammals like horses.
  • Cover up. Mosquitoes are drawn to darker,More intense colours, so wear light coloured, loose-fitting clothing from head to toe (long sleeved shirts, full-length pants, socks and shoes) during the hours from dusk through dawn. Tucking your pants into your socks is also a great preventative measure and can help further reduce bites.
  • Use insect repellent. Federally-regulated products containing DEET (N, N-diethyl-m-toluamide) are effective at defending yourself against bites.
  • Refrain from using scented products. Avoid colognes, perfumes, scented body lotions or shampoos that can attract mosquitoes.
  • Identify problem areas around the house. Think mosquito prevention when looking around your home and reduce breeding areas such as getting rid of standing water, cleaning eaves and drains and fixing window screens.

I think I have symptoms of WNv. What should I do?

Contact your health care provider if you have concerns about your health. If you or your family members develop symptoms such as high fever, confusion, muscle weakness, and severe headaches, you should see your doctor immediately. You can also call Telehealth Ontario at 1 866-797-0000 (TTY 1-866-797-0007) to speak with a registered nurse, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

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