It’s estimated that more than 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease. Learning that a loved one has Alzheimer’s can bring up countless questions. With a bombardment of information easily accessible online, it can be hard to know what’s true and what’s not. The following are some common myths surrounding the disease.
Myth 1: Alzheimer’s and Dementia Are One in the Same
Dementia is an umbrella term for progressive and disabling cognitive decline. Everybody with Alzheimer’s disease has dementia, but there are many different kinds of dementia. In fact, Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia, accounting for about 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
“Sometimes people are upset when they hear Alzheimer’s disease, and for some reason less upset when they’re told it's dementia. Everybody with Alzheimer’s has dementia, and in fact, most older adults with dementia have Alzheimer’s,” said neurologist Riley McCarten, MD, medical director of the Geriatric Research, Education and Clinical Center at the Minneapolis VA Health Care System.
Gary Kennedy, MD, geriatric psychiatrist at the Montefiore Medical Center in Bronx, New York said to think of it this way: “Alzheimer’s is to dementia as leukemia is to cancer.”
Myth 2: Everyone Gets Alzheimer’s Eventually
While Alzheimer’s disease is an age-related illness, it’s not inevitable for everyone. “If you live well into your 80s or 90s, about half of the population has some signs of dementia, but there’s also half that don’t. Dementia is always caused by disease. It’s not healthy aging,” said McCarten.
Myth 3: Alzheimer’s Comes on Strong
Alzheimer’s often is associated with the image of an incompetent or impaired person. However, for most people with Alzheimer’s, this isn’t the case until they’ve had the disease for years. “Like lots of chronic diseases, whether it’s emphysema or cancer or heart disease, people can look good for a long time with Alzheimer’s. Dementia, specifically Alzheimer’s Disease, can last for a long time, on average 10 years, and sometimes twice that long, so for the first 90 percent of it, people may be up and around, quite active and engaged,” said McCarten.
Not recognizing people also happens much later in the disease. “I tell families that it’s not important if the patient calls wife ‘Mother’ or husband ‘Father’ or daughter ‘Son’. What’s important is that they’re expressing love and affection and recognize that this is a person they love,” said Kennedy.
Myth 4: I’ll Have Alzheimer’s Because My Dad Had it
While having a family history of Alzheimer’s increases your risk, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have the disease. Scientists have found certain genes related to the onset of the illness. When genes are to blame, it is referred to as “familial Alzheimer’s disease,” because family members across several generations are affected. In these cases, symptoms tend to develop at a young age, usually before 60. This form of Alzheimer’s is rare, accounting for less than 5 percent of cases, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
“While there’s a lot of work that’s been done on identifying these genes, nothing has lead to the discovery of a medication that could modify the genetic risk,” said Kennedy.
Myth 5: Medication Can Cure Alzheimer’s
Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved several prescription medications to treat Alzheimer’s, the drugs are used to treat symptoms rather than cure the disease.
“While we have medications that will help, we really don’t understand what’s causing Alzheimer’s yet,” said Kennedy. “For instance, for diabetes, we know where the problem starts so we can counter it with medications like insulin. For HIV/AIDS, we found the infectious agent and now we have medication that keeps it at bay. However, that’s not the case with Alzheimer’s disease. It’s much more complicated.”
Both Kennedy and McCarten agree that the best approach to treatment is making lifestyle changes that give the patient a sense of independence for as long as possible.
“The concept of treatment, unfortunately, is usually viewed as a pill or surgical intervention, but medications have a modest affect,” said McCarten. “A lot of intervention isn’t related to medication. Somebody who is living with dementia can have a much better life if the family intervenes and makes sure they’re not isolated, are eating well and getting exercise.”
Myth 6: It’s Always Hard to Care For Someone with Alzheimer’s
Of course Alzheimer’s has detrimental effects, but Kennedy said there are some people with Alzheimer’s who are easier to care for than expected. “Rather than depressed and aggressive, there are Alzheimer’s patients who are in elevated spirits and in a certain sense ‘easy’ to take care of,” he said. “Of course they don’t make it into the research studies because they’re not a ‘problem’ and they’re not seen by the psychologist or specialty neurologist because the family is managing well.”
Still, Kennedy points out that there is a need for better resources for families who struggle with difficult behaviors exhibited by their loved one with Alzheimer’s.
Myth 7: Alzheimer’s is on the Rise
According to Kennedy, the percentage of older adults who now develop dementia has declined, but because the older adult population is increasing worldwide, the prevalence of dementia will continue to swell.
“There’s an increasing awareness that vascular risk factors such as diabetes and heart disease make a contribution to Alzheimer’s. In other words, people who have the pathology of Alzheimer’s also have the pathology of vascular disease in their brains,” Kennedy said. “The reason that’s so important is that we’ve had pretty good luck for intervention for cardiovascular disease, whether it’s the cholesterol lowering agents, anti-hypertensives, or anti-diabetic agents.”
“They’re all having an impact on the frequency of stroke, brain hemorrhage and heart attack, which is most likely responsible for the reduced incidence of dementia in late life,” he said.
Kennedy advises that ensuring a loved one with Alzheimer’s is properly treated for other conditions, such as lung disease, heart disease and diabetes may help keep dementia at bay.