Learn the facts about Alzheimer's Disease

September 24, 2020 Providence Senior's Health Team

This article was updated on September 24, 2020 to reflect recent research.

Now more than ever, it’s important to dispel the myths and learn the facts about Alzheimer’s disease.

  • The myth about older adults and Alzheimer’s disease.
  • The difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
  • How the brain can benefit from a healthy lifestyle.

[3 MIN READ]

Although it affects more than 5 million Americans, many people who know someone living with Alzheimer's disease have mistaken impressions about how it affects the brain. Here are some of the most common myths and misconceptions about Alzheimer’s disease — and the facts that dispel them.

What is Alzheimer’s disease? 

First, a little history. Alzheimer’s disease was discovered in 1906 when Dr. Alois Alzheimer autopsied the brain of a woman who had experienced memory loss and personality changes. She also wasn’t able to communicate or socialize. His examination showed major brain shrinkage and abnormal deposits in and around the brain’s nerve cells. This damage, now known as Alzheimer’s disease, causes the brain to deteriorate and destroy memory and other intellectual abilities. At this time, the disease can’t be cured or reversed.

Many people don’t realize Alzheimer’s disease is more than just memory loss. The brain-cell damage caused by Alzheimer’s can show up in both physical and cognitive symptoms.

Many people don’t realize Alzheimer’s disease is more than just memory loss. The brain-cell damage caused by Alzheimer’s can show up in both physical and cognitive symptoms such as:

  • Falls
  • Loss of balance
  • Depression
  • Not understanding social cues like sarcasm

It’s also important to note the difference between Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Nancy B. Isenberg, M.D., MPH, is a neurologist and the medical director of the Center for Healthy Aging, part of the Providence health system. She points out that “Dementia means, strictly speaking, loss of cognitive function in two or more areas that impacts your overall ability to function independently in the world. Dementia is an umbrella term. Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia. However, dementia does not cause Alzheimer’s disease.”

Learn more from Dr. Isenberg in “Compassionate Care for Elderly Patients in the Era of COVID-19.”

Today, Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth-leading cause of death in the U.S. and the fifth-leading cause of death for those age 65 and older. More than ever, people need to educate themselves and dispel the myths about Alzheimer’s disease. When patients and their families understand what the diagnosis really means, they can manage symptoms and plan their care more effectively.

The most widespread myths about Alzheimer’s disease include:

Myth: Only elderly people have Alzheimer’s disease 

A majority of people associate Alzheimer’s disease with old age, but the truth is that Alzheimer’s can affect people as young as 30 years old — although it’s much less common. Nearly 200,000 Americans with Alzheimer’s experience “early-onset” symptoms. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the disease symptoms can first appear after age 60 and the risk gets higher with age. That said, half of the people age 85 and older have Alzheimer’s disease, primarily affecting that age group. The bottom line is that even young to middle-age adults may show early warning signs and should follow up with their doctors.

Myth: It’s all about genetics

When people are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, they are quick to blame their genetic lottery. As in: If a person’s mom, dad, grandma or grandpa suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, it means that person will, too. Not true. Although Alzheimer’s does have some genetic risk factors, they’re not the only thing determining whether the disease will develop. Still, research does show that those who have a parent or sibling with Alzheimer's are more likely to develop the disease than those who do not have a first-degree relative with Alzheimer’s.

Although Alzheimer’s does have some genetic risk factors, they’re not the only thing determining whether the disease will develop.

Myth: Aluminum exposure can cause Alzheimer’s disease

In the 1960s and 1970s, people began to worry that aluminum was a cause of Alzheimer’s disease. They were especially concerned about drinking out of aluminum cans or using aluminum pots and pans to prepare everyday meals. After many studies, scientists have found no evidence-based connection between aluminum and the disease.

Myth: Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are the same thing

Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease aren’t the same. Dementia is an overall term for mental ability that has become so impaired it interferes with daily life. While Alzheimer’s is a specific disease, dementia is not. As mentioned earlier, it’s an umbrella term: Alzheimer’s disease is one of the conditions that fits under the umbrella.

Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease aren’t the same. Dementia is an overall term for mental ability that has become so impaired it interferes with daily life, while Alzheimer’s is a specific disease.

Dementia is a set of symptoms that have to do with a decline in memory, reasoning or other thinking skills. There are many types of dementia and a range of causes for it. One condition is called “mixed dementia.” It happens when brain changes of more than one type of dementia develop all at the same time.

The condition develops when brain cells are damaged, which affects how the cells communicate with each other. This can affect thinking, feelings and behavior. People can have more than one type of dementia, which is known as mixed dementia. Often, people with mixed dementia have many conditions that may contribute to dementia.

Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia, but keep in mind that not everyone with dementia is diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.

Myth: People with Alzheimer’s disease can’t live an engaging life

Don’t believe the myth! It’s certainly understandable that the natural response to Alzheimer’s disease is fear: fear of losing your personhood, relationships and ability to function. Although Alzheimer’s does lead to impairment over time, people who are living with Alzheimer’s disease can still enjoy their lives.

Many people who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease continue to lead fulfilling lives well after the onset of symptoms. They do it by spending time with their loved ones and pursuing the goals which give their lives meaning.

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Find a doctor

There are resources that can help people living with dementia and their families, such as the Alzheimer’s Association and the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging.

If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory or search for one in your area.

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What myths have you “busted” about Alzheimer’s disease? Share them with us here and let’s keep the conversation going. #ENDALZ

Related Resources

For people with Alzheimer's, music brings sweet memories

What you should know about preventing falls

Tips for Healthy Aging: A Conversation About Dementia with Dr. Nancy Isenberg

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Alzheimer’s Disease

Is Alzheimer’s Genetic?

Do’s and don'ts for communicating with someone with dementia

Alzheimer’s Association

National Association of Area Agencies on Aging.

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

 

About the Author

From how to identify and treat heart diseases to exercise tips to maintain an active lifestyle, the Providence Senior's Health team is committed to providing real-world advice that is hyper-relevant to helping those 65+ find ways stay young at heart

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