Alzheimer's disease and dementia are conditions affecting millions of people worldwide, disrupting lives and leaving families and caregivers uncertain and distressed. Despite the prevalence of these memory disorders, many dementia and Alzheimer's misconceptions persist, leading to stigma, fear, and potential delays in diagnosis and treatment.
1. Alzheimer's and Dementia Are the Same Thing
Alzheimer's and dementia are not interchangeable. Dementia is a general term for severe symptoms of cognitive decline like memory loss, language difficulties, and impaired problem-solving, which interfere with daily life. Alzheimer's disease is a specific type of dementia, accounting for 60-80% of dementia cases. While people with Alzheimer's have dementia, not all people with dementia have Alzheimer's.
2. Dementia Is a Normal Part of Aging
Many people assume that dementia is just a severe form of memory loss we all experience as we age. This is not true. While mild forgetfulness can be a normal part of aging, dementia involves severe memory loss, confusion, and other cognitive difficulties that significantly affect a person's ability to engage in daily activities. It's a progressive brain disorder that damages and eventually destroys brain cells, drastically affecting brain function and the overall health of the brain affected.
3. Alzheimer's Disease Only Affects the Elderly
Although Alzheimer's is more prevalent among older individuals, it is not solely a disease of old age. Early-onset Alzheimer's can occur in people in their 40s or 50s. However, it's less common, accounting for about 5% of all Alzheimer's cases.
4. Memory Loss Means Dementia
While memory loss is a significant symptom of dementia, it is not exclusive to this condition. Other medical conditions like depression, medication side effects, vitamin deficiencies, or thyroid problems can also cause memory problems. Furthermore, not all people with dementia initially show memory loss. For some, the early signs may be different cognitive issues, such as trouble finding the right words or difficulty planning and organizing.
5. Alzheimer's Disease Can Be Cured
As of now, there is no known cure for Alzheimer's. Current treatments aim to slow the disease progression and improve the quality of life for those living with the condition. Researchers are actively studying various aspects of Alzheimer's to develop more effective treatments, preventions, and, ultimately, find a cure.
6. Alzheimer's Disease Isn't Fatal
Many believe Alzheimer's disease is not deadly and only affects brain function. However, Alzheimer's is a progressive disease that leads to fatal complications. As Alzheimer's advances, it impairs vital functions such as walking, swallowing, and breathing. Alzheimer's disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, and the number of deaths from Alzheimer's disease has been rising over the years.
7. Only People with a Family History of Alzheimer's Get the Disease
While having a parent or sibling with Alzheimer's is one of many risk factors, it doesn't mean Alzheimer's is inevitable. Many people with Alzheimer's have no known family history of the disease. Alzheimer's is influenced by a combination of genetic, lifestyle, and environmental factors that are not fully understood yet. It is also important to note that some types of familial Alzheimer's, known as Early-Onset Familial Alzheimer's Disease (EOFAD), are specifically linked to certain gene mutations.
8. If Your Parent Has Alzheimer's, You Will Get It Too
This misconception causes a lot of fear and anxiety, but it's not entirely accurate. Having a parent with Alzheimer's increases your risk, but it does not guarantee you will develop the disease. Alzheimer's disease is complex and multifactorial; both genetic and environmental factors influence it. Just as some people with a family history of Alzheimer's do not develop the disease, many people with no family history do.
9. Dementia Patients Don't Know They Have the Disease
Some people may think that individuals with dementia are completely unaware of their condition. However, many people with dementia are aware of changes in their memory and cognitive function, particularly in the early and middle stages of the disease. This awareness can contribute to feelings of fear, frustration, and depression. As the disease progresses into the later stages, this self-awareness may decrease due to the severity of cognitive impairment.
10. Nothing Can Prevent Dementia
While there is no surefire prevention for developing dementia, evidence suggests that healthy lifestyle choices can help lower your risk. Regular physical exercise, maintaining a heart-healthy diet, staying mentally and socially active, getting adequate sleep, and managing stress effectively are all thought to contribute to brain health. Regular check-ups can also aid in the early detection of dementia, enabling earlier intervention and potentially delaying the onset of more severe dementia symptoms.
11. People with Dementia Are Violent
While behavioral changes can occur in people with dementia due to frustration, confusion, or environmental triggers, it's inaccurate to label all individuals with dementia as violent. These behaviors can often be managed or even avoided with the right strategies and support. For instance, providing a calm environment, communicating in simple terms, and offering emotional support can help reduce stress and anxiety levels.
12. People with Alzheimer's Can't Be Happy
While Alzheimer's does bring numerous challenges, it doesn't eliminate the capacity for positive emotions or enjoyment of life. Many individuals with Alzheimer's continue to experience happiness, love, and joy. They can enjoy the company of loved ones, find comfort in familiar activities, and engage positively with their environment, especially in the early and middle stages of the disease. Simple activities such as listening to their favorite music, walking in nature, enjoying a favorite meal, or spending time with pets can bring joy and comfort.
13. People with Dementia Can't Speak for Themselves
While dementia does affect a person's cognitive abilities, including language and communication skills, it does not completely take away their ability to express themselves, especially in the early and middle stages of the disease. People with dementia can and often do have clear preferences, emotions, and opinions that they can express, given the appropriate time, patience, and communication strategies.
Adapting communication strategies can significantly help facilitate self-expression. This could mean allowing extra time for responses, asking open-ended questions, being patient, and actively listening. Non-verbal communication, such as body language, facial expressions, and gestures, also plays a crucial role when verbal communication becomes challenging.
14. Aluminum Exposure Causes Alzheimer's Disease
In the 1960s, studies found higher levels of aluminum in the brains of people with Alzheimer's disease, sparking the myth that exposure to aluminum is a risk factor for the development of the disease. However, the majority of scientists and health organizations, including the Alzheimer's Association and the World Health Organization, agree that the current body of scientific evidence does not support the claim that aluminum causes Alzheimer's disease.
While it's true that the research found aluminum in the brains of Alzheimer's patients, it did not establish a direct cause-effect relationship. Aluminum is one of the most common elements on Earth, and exposure to it is virtually unavoidable. It's in our air, water, and soil, as well as in many foods and everyday items like cookware and cosmetics.
Clearing the Fog About Alzheimer's and Dementia
By addressing and debunking these misconceptions, we aim to remove the stigma attached to these conditions, provide accurate information to those affected and their families, and help everyone better understand the complexities of these diseases.
Understanding Alzheimer's and dementia can lead to empathy for those affected, encourage timely diagnosis and interventions, and provide the foundation for more effective support systems from family members and healthcare professionals.
At Keystone Health, we are dedicated to helping individuals with Alzheimer's and dementia live their best possible lives. Contact us to learn more about our Alzheimer's and dementia care options and resources, or to schedule an appointment with one of our specialists.