We talk to two leading names in the Alzheimer’s research community on the most common myths about the disease, and what they wish people knew.
- Posted on Jul 23, 2018
Alzheimer’s can be a terrifying diagnosis for families, especially when the causes of the disease and the effective ways to treat it remain a mystery to the medical community. Caregivers looking for answers are often forced to sift through tons of misinformation related to the disease to better understand it and how to care for their loved ones. For those looking to cut through the noise and learn the facts about Alzheimer’s and how to care for someone living with the illness, Guideposts.org has you covered.
We chatted with two leading names in the Alzheimer’s research community, Dr. Marie Bernard, Deputy Director of the National Institute on Aging, and Dr. Ruth Drew, Director of Information and Support Services at the Alzheimer's Association, to get to the bottom of some common myths about the disease.
From what causes Alzheimer’s to the foods that can prevent it, how genetics play a role, and if it can be treated, here are a few common beliefs about Alzheimer’s that need to be busted.
Myth: Alzheimer’s and Dementia are two separate illnesses.
Fact: When we talk about degenerative illnesses like Alzheimer’s and dementia, there’s the tendency to treat them as two separate illnesses or to use the words interchangeably. Alzheimer’s and dementia are part of the same family – they both affect the brain in similar ways – but they’re distinct in their differences.
“Dementia is a group of symptoms, but just calling something dementia doesn't speak to the cause,” Dr. Drew tells Guideposts.org. “There are a number of disease processes that can cause dementia. So Alzheimer's is, by far and away, the most prevalent dementia disease, but there's also vascular dementia, Lewy body disease, primary progressive aphasia, Huntington's disease. There are lots of other dementia diseases too.”
In other words, while Alzheimer’s is a form of dementia and therefore not a separate illness, the two terms shouldn’t be swapped in for each other. Just because someone has dementia, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have Alzheimer’s.
Myth: Memory loss is always a sign of Alzheimer’s.
Fact: Recognizing the signs of Alzheimer’s can be tricky, but there’s no reason that misplacing your car keys or forgetting a doctor’s appointment should send you into a panic. A certain amount of memory loss is a normal part of aging and most of the time, Alzheimer’s-related memory loss is easier to recognize.
“Alzheimer's always includes memory loss, but memory loss isn't always the first sign,” Dr. Drew explains. “Oftentimes it is. Oftentimes, early on, people notice significant changes, especially in their short-term memory because the part of the brain that seems to be impacted first is the center of new memory and new learning.”
So, if you’re having trouble learning new skills, remembering what day of the week or month of the year it is, then there may be a bigger issue.
“It’s part of normal aging to occasionally forget which word to use or misplace something temporarily,” Dr. Bernard says. “But a possible sign of Alzheimer’s disease is to have trouble following or participating in a conversation or losing things often and being unable to find them.”
Usually, the memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s will raise red flags with family members who know the person best.
“Typically, families will say that something happened that let them know that, ‘Wow, this is not normal. This is not something that Mom would've ever done before,’” Dr. Drew says.
Myth: Alzheimer’s only affects the elderly.
Fact: The older we get; the scarier an Alzheimer’s diagnosis can become. That’s because, of the 5.7 million Americans currently suffering with the illness, 5.5 million are 65 and older. But the disease doesn’t just affect the elderly.
“There are 200,000 people that we put in a category we call ‘younger onset,’” Dr. Drew says. “[These] people get the onset of symptoms in their 40s, 50s, and early 60s. So, it's rare, but it can happen.”
What’s more interesting about the disease is that, while symptoms may present in the elderly, the changes happening in a person’s brain because of Alzheimer’s are taking place years before the effects of those changes are felt.
“The onset of the brain pathology we believe is happening a long time before people start showing symptoms, but when we talk about age 65 and older, we're talking about the onset of significant symptoms,” Dr. Drew explains.
Myth: There are specific factors that cause Alzheimer’s.
Fact: None of the following have been linked to the disease: Aluminum cans. Dental fillings. Flu shots.
“I almost hate to reinforce some of these myths that don't have any scientific basis,” Dr. Drew says. “Some people think that drinking from a soda can or cooking out of aluminum pots and pans, those kinds of things. And there's been a fair amount of research to try and see if anything of that is true, and the researchers have told us that there just isn't any scientific basis for those kinds of ideas.”
Myth: Certain lifestyle changes can protect you from Alzheimer’s.
Fact: Just like the people who believe certain factors can cause Alzheimer’s, there are people who think specific lifestyle changes can protect you from the disease. They’re not completely wrong. While certain vitamins and foods like blueberries, red onions, and even marmite won’t prevent an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, a healthy and active lifestyle can improve your chances of avoiding the disease.
“Out of the top 10 causes of death in the United States, Alzheimer's is the one that has no known prevention, cure, or even treatment that slows it down,” Dr. Drew explains. “But that said, there's more and more evidence that there are lifestyle things we can do to give our brains the best chance of healthy aging.”
Things like eating a balanced diet full of healthy food like fruits and veggies, being physically active, and, according to Dr. Bernard, keeping your brain healthy as well.
“Try to stay socially engaged and keep connected to friends and family,” Dr. Bernard advises. “Participating in social activities may lower the risk for some health problems and improve well-being. Being cognitively active, whether it’s learning a new skill, language, or musical instrument; doing the crossword or other brain puzzles; or just enjoying a favorite hobby, may also benefit your brain.”
Myth: Alzheimer’s runs in my family, so I’ll have it too.
Fact: If a relative or immediate family member has Alzheimer’s, it’s understandable that you might be worried about your own chances for contracting the disease, but genetics aren’t the sole determining factor when it comes to the degenerative illness.
“Genetics for most of us are risk factors,” Dr. Drew says. “So, think of it like heart disease. If you have family members with heart disease or certain types of cancers, your doctor may tell you that you have a higher risk for those things. It doesn't mean you're going to get them, but it's something to look out for a little bit more. So those of us who have direct family members with Alzheimer's disease do have a greater risk factor, but it doesn't mean we're going to get Alzheimer's.”
Myth: People with Alzheimer’s are unaware of their surroundings and should be treated as such.
Fact: Caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s presents its own unknown challenges and one of the biggest issues first-time caregivers run into is how to connect with a family member with Alzheimer’s. While it might seem that a person with the disease is completely unaware of their surroundings – sometimes they can’t remember names, dates, or personal details – that doesn’t mean they don’t understand what’s happening to them and around them.
“At the Alzheimer's Association, we believe that there is an intact human being there throughout the course of the disease, and that there are ways of connecting with that person,” Dr. Drew says. “Over time, people do tend to lose the ability to speak in complete sentences. They may stop talking altogether. And so, they can seem nonresponsive, but that doesn't mean there's not still a person in there. We believe that you keep on connecting with that person. And that doesn't mean talking down to them or treating adults like children, but that we honor the lifetime of experience of this person and that we meet them where they are. We're the ones with healthy brains. We can adjust to what's going on with their brain.”
There are some simple rules caregivers can follow when interacting with loved ones living with Alzheimer’s.
“Make eye contact and call the person by name, Dr. Bernard advises. “Be aware of your tone, how loud your voice is, how you look at the person, and your body language. Encourage a two-way conversation for as long as possible. Use other methods besides speaking, such as gentle touching. Try distracting the person if communication creates problems. Don’t talk about the person as if he or she isn’t there.”
Myth: Alzheimer’s can be treated and eventually cured.
Fact: Unfortunately, while there are drugs that help alleviate symptoms associated with Alzheimer’s, we haven’t found a cure to the disease, or even a way of slowing it down, yet.
“There are no drugs currently that can slow down the pathology, the damage that's happening in the brain, but there are drugs that can help the brain have access to chemicals that make making connections easier,” Dr. Drew says. “These medications help people with their quality of life, but they don't stop the disease progression. They don't cure anything.”
If you’re a caregiver or looking for more information on Alzheimer’s, please visit the Alzheimer’s Association or the National Institute on Aging for the latest research, studies, and developments related to the disease. For those looking for support in taking care of a loved one with Alzheimer’s, try the Alzheimer’s Association’s 24-hour helpline, 800-272-3900.