Although it affects more than 5 million Americans, many people who know someone living with Alzheimer's disease have mistaken impressions about how the disease affects the brain. Victoria Leigh, DO, a board-certified internal medicine physician at St. Joseph Heritage Medical Group, identifies some of the most common myths and misconceptions about Alzheimer’s disease.
What is Alzheimer’s Disease?
First, a little history. Alzheimer’s disease was first discovered in 1906 when Dr. Alois Alzheimer autopsied the brain of a woman who had experienced memory loss, personality shifts, and an inability to communicate or socialize. He saw significant shrinkage and abnormal deposits in and around nerve cells of the brain. This damage, now known as Alzheimer’s disease, is an irreversible deterioration of the brain that destroys one’s memory and other intellectual abilities, and is eventually fatal.
“Many people don’t realize Alzheimer’s disease is more than just memory loss.” says Dr. Leigh. “The brain-cell damage caused by Alzheimer’s can manifest in both physical and cognitive symptoms such as falls or loss of balance, depression, and not understanding social cues like sarcasm.”
Today, Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth-leading cause of death in the U.S. and kills more people than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined. A new case of Alzheimer’s develops every 68 seconds; by 2050, a new case will develop every 33 seconds.
Now more than ever, people need to educate themselves on the realities of Alzheimer’s disease and dispel the myths. Dr. Leigh says, “The better a patient and their family understand what their diagnosis really means, they more effectively they can manage symptoms and plan their loved one’s care.”
Among the most widespread myths about Alzheimer’s Disease are:
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. Nearly 200,000 Americans with Alzheimer’s experience “early-onset” symptoms. That being said, half of people age 85 and older have Alzheimer’s disease, primarily affecting that age group.
Myth: It’s all about genetics.
When people are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, they are quick to blame their genetic lottery. Just because a person’s mom, dad, grandma or grandpa did or didn’t suffer from Alzheimer’s disease does not determine whether or not that person will. “Although Alzheimer’s has some genetic risk factors, it’s not the only indicator of development,” said Dr. Leigh. “Young to middle-age adults may show early warning signs and should follow up with their physicians.”
Myth: Aluminum exposure can cause Alzheimer’s disease.
In the 1960s and 1970s, a suspicion developed about aluminum as a cause of Alzheimer’s disease--specifically, drinking out of aluminum cans or using aluminum cookware to prepare everyday meals. After many studies, scientists have found no evidence-based connection between the element and the illness.
Myth: There’s nothing that can be done to forestall symptoms.
Although there is no cure for the progressive disease, both mental and physical activities may help delay dementia symptoms. Instead of relying just on medication, people in early stages of Alzheimer’s benefit from exercise and brain-stimulating hobbies, a combination which research suggests can stave off cognitive decline. Bottom line, the brain benefits from a healthier lifestyle.
Myth: People with Alzheimer’s disease can’t live an engaging life.
The natural response to Alzheimer’s disease is fear; fear of losing one’s self, relationships, or the ability to function. Although Alzheimer’s is accompanied by significant progressive impairment, people living with Alzheimer’s disease still have the ability to enjoy their lives. Many people who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease continue to live fulfilling lives well after the onset of symptoms, by spending time with their loved ones and pursuing the goals which give their lives meaning.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.