Misconceptions about Alzheimer’s risk factors and ways to prevent Alzheimer’s can stand in the way of your health.
“Alzheimer’s disease is NOT a normal part of aging,” says Dr. Krystal L. Culler, DBH.
Understanding Alzheimer’s disease
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive brain disorder that typically causes memory loss and problems with thinking and behavior. Many people think it’s a natural part of aging and only affects older people, but that’s not the case. It’s not a normal part of aging, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. In fact, even though it does get more common with age, about 200,000 people in the U.S. under age 65 have the disease. In younger people, it’s known as early onset Alzheimer’s disease. More than 5 million Americans live with Alzheimer’s, but many people don’t know much about it or how to lower their risk of this memory-robbing condition. Here are some common myths about Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s and dementia are two separate things
Although some people might not use the terms interchangeably, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are basically the same. (Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia.) “You may hear people explaining that their loved one has both Alzheimer’s and dementia, when in fact, Alzheimer’s is under the ‘umbrella’ of dementia,” explains Phoebe James, the director of resident engagement at Wentworth Senior Living. “They are not two separate things. There are over 100 different forms of dementia, each type comes with a variety of different symptoms.” This is the real difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s.
You can’t prevent or treat Alzheimer’s
Contrary to what many people believe, there are things you can do to lower your risk of these diseases. There are also lifestyle changes you can make once you get them. “One of the enduring myths surrounding Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias is that there is nothing any of us can do to reduce our risk of these diseases, that they are an inevitability,” says Nick Bott, chief science officer at Neurotrack. “In fact, our brain affects and is affected by every other system in our body. This is incredibly important because it means that lifestyle changes around physical activity, diet, cognitive engagement and social engagement have direct and indirect effects on our brain health and can significantly improve our lifespan, health span, and brain span.”
All people who have Alzheimer’s disease become violent and irritable
Alzheimer’s disease can cause personality changes and mood swings, but they aren’t always violent. “As an in-home care company specializing in memory care, we tend to work with a lot of clients who are already pretty far along on their journey with this disease. More than anything, we see clients who are simply frustrated with their own memory loss and confusion,” says Scott Knoll, owner of By Your Side Home Care, an elderly in-home caregiving agency specializing in Alzheimer’s services. “Some of the best practices for helping a loved one experiencing Alzheimer’s personality changes is to remain calm and engage in good listening.” (These everyday habits may reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s.)
I don’t need to worry about Alzheimer’s because no one in my family has it
You may think that Alzheimer’s disease doesn’t have a genetic component. “This is wrong at two levels,” says Hermona Soreq, PhD, a neuroscientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Edmund and Lily Safra Center for Brain Science. “First, some people do inherit single mutations that cause this disease, although those are rare; and second, others develop it due to many small inherited risks, which work together with an unhealthy lifestyle to induce this disease.”
However, you can also develop the disease even if no other family member you know has it. “We’re all at risk for Alzheimer’s, says Kenneth S. Kosik, MD, and author of Outsmarting Alzheimer’s. “We all have a 50 percent chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease after age 85. Most people diagnosed with late-onset Alzheimer’s disease do not test positive as carriers for any of the known Alzheimer’s genes.” (These are 16 things people with Alzheimer’s wish you knew.)
There are supplements that can help prevent Alzheimer’s
There have yet to be any studies proving the ability of vitamins, herbal products, or medications to prevent the development of Alzheimer’s disease, says Dr. Kumar Dharmarajan, chief scientific officer at Clover Health. “However, a healthy lifestyle including frequent physical activity, heart-healthy diets, and control of chronic conditions such as high blood pressure or diabetes could help reduce the likelihood,” he says. “While there is no conclusive evidence directly linking these lifestyle changes to preventing Alzheimer’s, they have been shown in some studies to promote increased brain health, which could ultimately play a key role in thwarting the disease.”
Alzheimer’s disease is a normal part of aging
Just because you get older doesn’t mean you’ll get Alzheimer’s “Although changes in the brain occur with age starting in our mid-twenties, Alzheimer’s disease is not a normal part of aging,” says Dr. Krystal L. Culler, DBH, Oscar Family Director of Menorah Park Center 4 Brain Health, Senior Atlantic Fellow- Global Brain Health Institute. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia in the United States and age is the greatest known risk factor to developing Alzheimer’s disease, especially after the age of eighty.” (This is what neurologists do to prevent Alzheimer’s.)
Alzheimer’s doesn’t just affect the elderly. “One myth that I commonly hear about Alzheimer’s is that the condition solely affects the elderly population,” says Nesochi Okeke-Igbokwe, MD, physician and health and wellness expert. “Though we typically hear about the disease occurring more often in older people, there is a small subset of those affected by early-onset Alzheimer’s who may manifest symptoms as early as their 30s and 40s. It is important to note that early-onset Alzheimer’s is less common and genetics may sometimes play a role in increasing the risk for the condition.”
Alzheimer’s disease medications will stop disease progression
Medications can help with symptoms, but not disease progression “Despite the current advances in our medical field and understanding of Alzheimer’s disease, there is currently no known medication or supplement that will stop the progression of Alzheimer’s disease,” says Dr. Culler. “Current medications approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are used to treat the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.” (Here’s how to predict whether your memory loss will be Alzheimer’s.)
Visiting someone with Alzheimer’s is pointless
You might think there’s no point in visiting someone who won’t remember you, but that isn’t the case. “Alzheimer’s affects people differently, and relationships are deep and complex,” says Caleb Backe, Health and Wellness Expert for Maple Holistics. “That is to say, just because someone consciously doesn’t remember you, that doesn’t mean there isn’t any subconscious or emotional recognition. It is crucial to maintaining your relationship with the person both for their sake, and your own.”Brain mapping tests have shown that the brain regions responsible for memorizing music are last to be damaged in people with dementia, says Soreq. “It reminds me of a neighbor we had many years ago, who immigrated to Israel from Europe where he’d been a famous opera singer; he had dementia and could not speak one full sentence, but he was singing complete opera solos beautifully!” she says.
People aren’t trying
Some people blame those with the disease for not working hard enough to fight it, says Christina Chartrand, VP of Training at Senior Helpers. “A common myth is that people living with Alzheimer’s aren’t doing what they can, and we should push them harder. The brain is dying and people are doing the best they can in that moment. We need to change how we react.”
Alzheimer’s can only be treated after a diagnosis
Doctors used to believe that you couldn’t do anything about Alzheimer’s until symptoms appeared. “In the past few years, there’s been a shift in the thinking for many of us who study dementia. We’ve come to the conclusion that the best time to treat Alzheimer’s disease is before the earliest symptoms surface,” says Dr. Kosik. “This shift has been brought on by new technology that allows us to peer inside the human brain… We now know that the Alzheimer’s plaques begin to proliferate ten or even 20 years before the first Alzheimer’s symptoms become noticeable.” These are the early signs of Alzheimer’s that every adult should know.