Alzheimer’s Awareness: Debunking 10 Common Myths
Here, some of the common misconceptions about Alzheimer’s disease.
Myth 1: It’s just a normal part of aging
People used to believe “going senile” was just part of growing old, but symptoms are caused by a disease process. Alzheimer’s is a degenerative brain disease involving physical changes to the brain — such as the development of amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles and nerve cells losing contact with each other or dying.
The disease is progressive and irreversible — but it isn’t inevitable as we age. In fact, experts say most people don’t develop it.
Myth 2: Memory loss = Alzheimer’s disease
Occasional forgetfulness doesn’t mean you have Alzheimer’s disease, which is more about frequent forgetting and not being able to recall those forgotten details later on. Difficulty performing familiar tasks, problems with communication, disorientation, poor judgment and problems with abstract thinking are also hallmarks of the disease.
Sometimes these symptoms stem from a treatable cause like an infection, drug interaction, depression, head injury or another health condition like multiple sclerosis.
It’s also important to remember that Alzheimer’s disease is just one of 70 causes of dementia (an umbrella term for memory loss due to changes in the brain). Not everyone who has dementia has Alzheimer’s — it can also be part of Parkinson’s disease or the result of a stroke, for example.
Myth 3: Your relatives have it, so you’ll develop it too
Genes do play a role in our chances of developing the disease, but only a small number of cases — about five to seven per cent — are an inherited form of the disease known as Familial Alzheimer’s disease (often referred to as “early onset”).
While the disease itself is the same as the more common Sporadic Alzheimer’s disease or “late onset” form, the difference lies in a set of mutated genes that can be passed from one generation to the next. If one of your parents carries the mutation, you have a 50 per cent chance of inheriting it. If you inherit the genes, experts say you’re likely to develop the disease.
What about the sporadic form? If you have a parent or sibling who has Alzheimer’s disease, you have a three times greater risk than someone who doesn’t have a family history. New research suggests that certain genes (such as the apolipoprotein E gene) can influence the development of the disease but experts note genes themselves don’t cause the disease, and people who don’t have the genes can still develop Alzheimer’s disease while people who do can remain disease-free.
Myth 4: Alzheimer’s disease only affects “old people”
True, our risk for Alzheimer’s disease increases as we age: the majority of cases show up after age 60, and the risk for developing the disease doubles every five years after 65. Some sources claim that, by age 85, about half of all people have Alzheimer’s disease or a related dementia.
However, Alzheimer’s disease can appear in the 40s and 50s as well, and some rare cases have shown in patients who are even younger. Research suggests Alzheimer’s disease is already in the advanced stages by the time symptoms become evident.
Myth 5: It isn’t fatal
What happens in our brains affects the rest of the body, too. In the later stages of the disease, the body’s systems start to shut down which can affect breathing, blood pressure, the skin and the senses. Sufferers may experience increased sleepiness, pain and discomfort and infection or pneumonia can set in.
Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias are one of the top 10 causes of death in developed countries. In 2007 (the latest year for which data is available), it was the 7th leading cause of death in Canada and ranked 6th in the United States. Alzheimer’s kills more people than kidney disease and infections like influenza.