5 Myths About Alzheimer's Disease

From the WebMD Archives

Get the facts about Alzheimer's disease as we clear up five common misunderstandings.

Myth No. 1: Alzheimer’s happens only to older people.

Most people with Alzheimer’s are 65 and older. But it can happen when you’re younger, too. About 5% of people with the disease get symptoms in their 30s, 40s, or 50s. It’s called early-onset Alzheimer’s.

People who have it often go a long time before getting an accurate diagnosis. That’s because doctors don’t usually consider it a possibility during midlife. They often think symptoms like memory loss are from stress.

Early-onset Alzheimer's can be genetic. Scientists think it involves changes in one of three rare genes passed down from a parent.

Myth No. 2: Alzheimer’s symptoms are a normal part of aging.

Some memory loss is a normal part of aging. But Alzheimer’s symptoms -- like forgetfulness that interferes with your daily life, and disorientation -- are not.

It’s normal to forget where your keys are from time to time. But forgetting how to drive to a place you’ve been many times, or losing track of what season it is, points to a more serious problem.

Unlike the mild memory loss that can happen with aging, Alzheimer's disease takes a growing toll on the brain. As the disease gradually worsens, it takes away someone's ability to think, eat, talk, and more.

So, if your mind doesn't seem as sharp as it used to be, that doesn't mean you have Alzheimer's symptoms. The condition becomes more common among people as they age, but “it isn’t an inevitable part of aging,” says George Perry, MD. He's a neuroscientist and a member of the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America.

Myth No. 3: Alzheimer’s doesn't lead to death.

Sadly, it's the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. Most people live 8 to 10 years after they’re diagnosed.

They can forget to drink or eat, or they might have trouble swallowing, which can lead to a severe shortage of nutrients. They can also have breathing problems, and that can lead to pneumonia, which is often deadly, Perry says.

Also, the high-risk behaviors that sometimes stem from Alzheimer's, like wandering into dangerous situations, can be fatal.

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Myth No. 4: There are treatments that stop the disease from getting worse.

While certain treatments can help against Alzheimer's symptoms, “there’s no current way to stop or slow” the disease itself, says Heather M. Snyder, PhD, of the Alzheimer’s Association.

Snyder warns against supplements, diets, or regimens that claim to cure it. No evidence shows they're useful treatments for the disease.

Five medications are FDA-approved to treat Alzheimer’s symptoms: donepezil (Aricept), galantamine (Razadyne), memantine (Namenda), rivastigmine (Exelon), and tacrine (Cognex).

These medications might help with thinking, memory, language skills, and some behavioral problems. But they don’t work for everyone. If they do work, the relief is usually temporary. Someone with the condition “may do better for a year or so at best,” Perry says.

Myth No. 5: Alzheimer’s is caused by aluminum, flu shots, silver fillings, or aspartame.

You may have heard that cooking with aluminum pans or drinking from aluminum cans causes Alzheimer’s. But there’s no scientific evidence to back that claim.

Some people think the artificial sweetener aspartame causes it. No evidence supports that theory either.

Others think silver dental fillings raise your risk. Again, there’s not much to go on.

Another false belief is that flu shots cause Alzheimer’s. Research suggests the opposite is true: Vaccinations can lower your risk and boost your overall health.

Experts don’t know what causes the disease. It might be a mix of factors tied to genes, environment, and lifestyle. Some research suggests it might be related to health conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. There’s a lot of research under way, but the results aren’t yet clear.

Scientists are becoming more interested in the possible role of lifestyle factors. Snyder says a healthy diet, exercise, being social, and doing things that challenge your mind might lower your risk. Since the research is still early on, the exact “lifestyle recipe” is unknown, though.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Neil Lava, MD on January 23, 2015

Sources

SOURCES:

George Perry, MD, neuroscientist, Alzheimer’s Foundation of America advisory board.

Heather M. Snyder, PhD, director of medical and scientific relations, Alzheimer’s Association.

National Institute on Aging: “About Alzheimer's Disease: Alzheimer's Basics,” “Alzheimer's Disease Fact Sheet.”

Alzheimer’s Association: “Alzheimer’s Myths,” “Younger/Early Onset Alzheimer's & Dementia,” “10 Early Signs and Symptoms of Alzheimer's,” “What Is Alzheimer’s?” “What We Know Today About Alzheimer's Disease.”

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