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7 Myths About Alzheimer's Disease

What not to believe about Alzheimer's disease.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

It's one of the most feared brain diseases: Alzheimer's. It robs people of their memory bit by bit, has no cure -- and with an aging population, shows no sign of slowing down.

The media is riddled with stories about its causes, symptoms, and prevention. But some of those reports don't tell the whole story.

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Here are seven common misunderstandings about Alzheimer’s disease and the truths behind them.

1. Myth: Some memory loss is normal.

True, many of us find that our memory isn’t what it once was as we age. But it’s important to distinguish between a busy mind and true memory loss, says James E. Galvin, MD, MPH.

“It may take you longer to remember where you put something or a name, but you’re able to get back to it. That’s not memory loss, that’s aging,” says Galvin, a neurology and psychiatry professor at New York University's Langone Medical Center.

When should you be concerned? When changes in thinking occur. 

“If you’re forgetting important things like loved ones' names or if [memory loss] impacts your ability to function or there are things you can no longer do because of memory problems, seek evaluation,” says John Ringman, MD, associate clinical professor of neurology at UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine.

2. Myth: Exercise, diet, and mental activities prevent Alzheimer’s disease.

Although many stories in the popular press have advanced the idea that a healthy lifestyle can help prevent Alzheimer’s, the scientific evidence is unclear.

Studies have, indeed, found that eating a healthy diet, engaging in aerobic exercise on a regular basis, staying socially active, and keeping your mind engaged with games and puzzles are linked to lower odds of getting Alzheimer’s. Studies also suggest that “these same lifestyle changes may reduce the progression of symptoms for people who already have Alzheimer’s disease,” Galvin says.

But “it's not entirely clear that the effect applies in individual cases," Galvin says. "I’ve known Twinkie-eating couch potatoes who don’t get it and vegan marathon runners who do."

An even bigger issue here is causation vs. correlation. That is, healthy lifestyles and less likelihood of getting Alzheimer's disease may be linked (that's correlation), but it's not clear that lifestyle is driving that link (that's causation).

It could be that people with healthy lifestyle habits have other traits working to their advantage. In short, there's no proof that lifestyle prevents Alzheimer's disease.

Still, there is no downside to eating healthfully, staying physically and mentally active, and nurturing your relationships. Even if it isn't proven to prevent Alzheimer's disease, it's certainly good for you and your quality of life.

“My approach to that is that it’s a good idea for your general health and there is some evidence that aerobic exercise helps cognition,” Ringman says.

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