Five Myths about Alzheimer’s Disease
Find answers to some of the most common misconceptions about Alzheimer’s disease.
Chelsea Weidman Burke, MS
Whether you or a loved one have received an Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis, or you know someone who has, you probably have a lot of questions. So, you start searching for answers on the internet. After sifting through article after article, you may be confused about all the terminology – what does having Alzheimer’s disease mean? Is it the same as dementia? And is it a normal part of aging?
To answer these questions and dispel myths, I asked a few Alzheimer’s disease experts about what they thought the top myths and misconceptions about Alzheimer’s were.
Myth #1: Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are interchangeable
Dr. Jermaine Ross: “Up until the 1970s, dementia was thought to be a single disease. But then it became apparent that dementia is a collection of neurological diseases where Alzheimer's makes up most of those cases (about 70 percent). The rest are patients who suffer from Lewy body dementia (which Robin Williams had), frontal temporal dementia, and vascular dementia. There is distinct disease biology that dictates the progression and clear nature of each dementia.”
Myth #2: Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline are a normal consequence of aging
Dr. Mary Sano: “Changes in memory may be inevitable with age, but Alzheimer’s isn’t. When it does exist, it has a significant impact on memory and the ability to do daily activities. The idea that ‘everyone gets a little dementia and it doesn’t matter’ isn’t true either. Cognitive impairment and dementia are important because they can be really disabling – you may no longer be competent with technology,which can make it difficult to pay bills, get meals, and get help when you need it. A supportive environment and supervision can be needed for a person with disease.”
Dr. Sam Gandy: “Alzheimer’s is not equivalent to an inconvenience or trivial absentmindedness – it causes loss of independence within five years of symptom onset and is eventually fatal after an average of 10 years.”
Myth #3: Alzheimer’s disease is just an ‘older person’s disease’
Dr. Ross: “There are two major types of Alzheimer's: sporadic and familial. Sporadic means there isn't a strong known genetic component driving disease, but there is a true underlying pathogenic cause. In contrast, familial Alzheimer’s is caused by certain genetic mutations inherited from family members and carry nearly a 100 percent likelihood of developing Alzheimer's. The major difference between sporadic and familial Alzheimer’s is age of disease onset. While the majority of people will develop sporadic Alzheimer's in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, the age of onset for familial Alzheimer’s is between the 30s and 50s – very rarely, it can strike as early as the mid-20s. So, it's not just an old person's disease.”
Myth #4: Alzheimer’s disease is a single disease
Dr. Ross: “Alzheimer's disease is most likely a syndrome. Sporadic Alzheimer's disease onset is quite variable with patients becoming symptomatic at 65 versus 93. Disease progression can also be quite different. People live with the disease for seven years on average, but some live with it for 20 years. Some patients also suffer from psychosis where they see visual or auditory stimuli that aren’t really there, but that's not always the case.”
“Specific disease mechanisms can be quite different across Alzheimer’s patients. It is becoming increasingly clear within the research community that there is a disease spectrum. There is most likely not going to be one single therapy – a combination therapy will likely help these patients."
Myth #5: Alzheimer’s disease medications don’t do anything
Dr. Sano: “We do have some medications for Alzheimer’s. The effects may be small, but they are robust, meaning we see benefits across many clinical studies in a wide variety of people who take the drugs. Getting an Alzheimer’s diagnosis is also important to allow patients access to the drugs and to be sure they have supervision to take them properly.”
Sam Gandy, MD, PhD, is the Director of the Barbara and Maurice Deane Center for Wellness and Cognitive Health and the Mount Sinai Chair for Alzheimer's Research.
- Alzheimer’s Disease Toolkit (Helpful Information to Understand and Manage Alzheimer's Disease)
- Expert Information on Alzheimer's Disease (Articles)
- What is Dementia? (Article)
- What Causes Dementia? (Article)
- Is it Alzheimer’s Disease or Lewy Body Dementia? (Article)
- Frontotemporal Dementias (Article)
- What is Vascular Dementia? (Article)
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