More than six million Americans battle Alzheimer's disease, the most common form of dementia. Although the number of affected patients continues to climb worldwide, myths and misconceptions still abound when it comes to this progressive neurological disease.
Arming yourself with the right information can help you better support your loved ones in the fight against Alzheimer's.
Fiction: Memory loss is a natural part of aging.
Fact: While forgetting the name of someone you just met is normal, especially as you age, forgetting the name of a good friend or family member can be cause for concern. Alzheimer's disease causes brain cells to malfunction and die, which leads to ongoing difficulties with thinking, learning, and other day-to-day abilities that involve the use of memory.
“The emphasis is not on whether they forgot a word or where they put something down, but rather how they're functioning and getting through the day," says Ronald Silverman, MD, a neurologist at Westmed Medical Group, A Summit Health Company, in Yonkers, New York. “Are they still able to cook, clean, do their housekeeping, and attend to their personal needs? Other early warning signs to look for are changes in behavior and personality — such as when someone who was previously outgoing suddenly becomes withdrawn or vice versa."
Fiction: Alzheimer's is a disease that only affects older people.
Fact: Although most people who develop Alzheimer's disease are over the age of 65, it can also affect people as early as in their 30s, 40s, and even 50s. These early-onset patients account for about 10 percent of all cases.
It is true, however, that the older we get, the higher our likelihood of developing Alzheimer's — the percentage of people with this disease doubles for each five-year span beyond age 65.
Fiction: Alzheimer's is caused by genetics.
Fact: While the exact cause of Alzheimer's remains unknown, only a very small minority of people develop it because of genetics. “Just because your grandmother had it doesn't mean you're also going to get it," says Dr. Silverman.
While we don't yet know how to prevent it, there are certain steps you can take to manage the risks of developing dementia. These include making brain-healthy choices such as following a Mediterranean diet and being physically, socially, and mentally active.
Fiction: Alzheimer's and dementia are the same.
Fact: Alzheimer's is a form of dementia, but not all dementias are Alzheimer's. The distinction is important, says Dr. Silverman. “Alzheimer's is a progressive disease that gets worse and worse over the years. But if your dementia is the result of multiple small strokes over the past few years, for example, there are ways to stop it in its tracks through regulating cholesterol and blood pressure and other lifestyle choices," he says.
Dr. Silverman emphasizes the importance of seeing a neurologist for an accurate diagnosis: “A couple of times a year, we see someone who looks and sounds like they have dementia, but it turns out it's just depression, vitamin deficiency, or side effects from prescription drugs. With proper evaluation and treatment, we can get them back to normal."
Fiction: There is nothing you can do for someone diagnosed with Alzheimer's.
Fact: For most patients, during the first five to seven years of their disease, they can still enjoy a good quality of life, says Avery Katz, MD, a neurologist with Summit Health in Clifton, New Jersey. However, this requires a supportive, familial environment. “Family members need to sit down and discuss necessary lifestyle changes, such as addressing safety issues around the house, planning for long-term care and medication compliance, and physical and mental exercises to slow down the course of the disease," he says.
Fiction: People don't die from Alzheimer's disease.
Fact: Alzheimer's disease is the sixth leading cause of death for adults. Most people live eight to 10 years after diagnosis, though some may live for up to 20 years. “As the disease progresses, it will ultimately lead to significant behavioral changes,” says Dr. Katz. “Those include agitation and depression, but you will also see a loss of ability to speak, walk, or control bladder and bowel function.”
Though rates of progression may vary, there is currently no cure for Alzheimer's disease.
If you or a loved one is experiencing memory loss or concerned about Alzheimer’s disease, please consult your primary care provider or consult one of our neurologists.