10 Myths About Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease

By American Geriatrics Society (AGS)

There are many myths about dementia in general and Alzheimer’s disease (AD) in particular. These false and misleading beliefs have led many people to try the wrong treatments and avoid seeking appropriate help. Such myths need busting! Here are ten common myths and why they’re wrong.

Dementia is a natural part of aging

Dementia isn’t a part of normal aging. Most people know seniors who remain mentally sharp despite advanced years, which clearly busts this myth, although it’s true that dementia (and AD) is more common in older people. Most people who are diagnosed with dementia including AD are in their senior years.

But advancing age isn’t the only risk factor for dementia. Lifestyle issues such as smoking, lack of exercise, and poor diet and medical issues like high blood pressure and high cholesterol play a part. Genetics and family history are involved as well. However, just because your Great Aunt Martha had dementia doesn’t mean that you’ll be afflicted.

Thus, even though older people may be a bit forgetful at times and appear confused about what day it is or forget where they put their keys, having a few such “senior moments” doesn’t amount to dementia. Dementia is a clearly defined medical diagnosis that thankfully doesn’t apply to everyone as they age.

Dementia is the same as Alzheimer’s disease

This myth is like saying beer is the same as alcohol. Beer is a type of alcoholic drink, but it certainly isn’t the only one. Wine, gin, whiskey, scotch, vodka, tequila, rum, hard cider, champagne, and port, are also alcoholic drinks. In the same way, dementia is the big category.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common and well-known cause of dementia, with its own society to boot and makes up more than 60 percent of all dementias. The other main types of dementia are vascular dementia, frontotemporal dementia, and Lewy body disease, which together make up about 30 percent. The remaining 10 percent are comprised of the more rare forms of dementia including Parkinson’s dementia, normal pressure hydrocephalus, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, Huntington’s disease, and Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome among others.

Everyone with dementia becomes aggressive

Thankfully, they don’t. Anger and aggression can be behavioral symptoms of dementia, but they’re by no means universal.

Everyone is capable of being annoyed, losing their tempers, and getting cantankerous. However, some people are naturally hot headed and can blow their lid at the drop of a hat, whereas others have the patience of a saint and only lose control when they’re pushed to the limit. People maintain elements of their own personality even in severe dementia.

However, that’s not to say that dementia-triggered disinhibition can’t make warlords out of pacifists sometimes. Yet those who were grumpy pre-dementia will often stay grumpy, shouting, cussing, and moaning their way through the illness. However, there is the chance that they will become more serene. Likewise, if people were calm, cool, and collected pre-dementia, they may remain so or become more irritable.

After language skills have declined in more advanced dementia, these individuals may show agitation, anger, or aggression because they can’t otherwise communicate their discomfort or pain. Although what is bothering these folks can be difficult to sort out, changing something in their surroundings or treating the underlying physical problem often will resolve these behaviors.

Alzheimer’s disease affects only old people

Although AD is more common in older people, it isn’t only a disease of old age. Younger people in their 40s or 50s may develop early onset AD, although it’s much less common. Up to 5 percent of all Americans with AD fall into this category. Although the age of onset is younger, early onset AD follows the same progression of cognitive and functional losses as AD affecting older people. Doctors don’t understand the cause of early onset AD, although some cases of rare familial AD that develop in this age group do exist. These individuals have inherited specific genes that cause early onset AD in multiple family members over multiple generations.

Aluminium gives you dementia

The myth describing a link between dementia and aluminum in cooking pots, pop cans, and antiperspirants began in the 1960s. That is when some scientists took it upon themselves to inject aluminum into the brains of live rabbits to see what happened. Not surprisingly, the rabbits fared poorly: they developed protein tangles in their brains, similar to those found in people diagnosed with AD. Consequently, these researchers linked AD to aluminum exposure, and a conspiracy theory was born. Since then, further research hasn’t corroborated any link, so the Alzheimer’s Association is very keen to dismiss this myth.

Alzheimer’s disease can be cured

At present, no cure for AD (as well as most other forms of dementia) is available. The FDA approved drugs used in AD may slow progression for 6 to 12 months in half the people who take them, but this effect is temporary. These drugs don’t cure AD, although they can be beneficial. Much research is currently underway to understand the causes of AD and search for a cure.

Alzheimer’s disease is progressive and debilitating but not fatal

Actually, AD can kill you. Although other disease processes like heart attack can kill you before AD does the job, in 2015 about 700,000 Americans older than 65 died from AD. In fact, AD is the only condition in the top ten causes of death in the United States that isn’t preventable or curable. Between 2000 and 2013, deaths from AD increased by more than 70 percent, whereas deaths from the number one killer, heart disease, declined almost 15 percent.

Women are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than men

It’s true that more women than men develop dementia; in fact, two-thirds of Americans with AD are women. Among AD sufferers, the proportion of women to men increases with age. However, women aren’t necessarily more susceptible to the causes of dementia than men. Rather, they tend to live longer (a woman’s life expectancy in the United States is 81.2 years compared to 76.4 for a man), thus increasing their likelihood of developing dementia, which is more common with advancing age.

If you’re forgetting things, you’re definitely developing dementia

Memory loss is one of the most common symptoms of all types of dementia, but it’s by no means the only symptom. To be diagnosed with dementia, people need to have symptoms affecting not only their cognitive functions (like memory and thinking), but also their ability to carry out the normal activities of daily life.

A forgetful person may never develop these other problems and so steer clear of full-on dementia. However, if a person has noticeable cognitive impairment that isn’t severe enough to interfere with daily life, he may be suffering from Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI). MCI may affect up to 10 to 20 percent of people older than 65. Although MCI increases the risk of developing dementia, it doesn’t always lead to dementia.

Red wine can reverse Alzheimer’s disease

You may think this is purely wishful thinking, but scientific research is finding that a compound in red wine may be beneficial in preventing or even treating AD. But the idea that drinking a glass of merlot nightly will reverse AD is definitely false. Researchers have identified that red wine contains polyphenols including resveratrol that have been shown to decrease memory deterioration in mice by decreasing the development of amyloid plaques in their brains.

This study led to the idea that red wine may help prevent and treat AD. In 2015, the Alzheimer’s Association funded a clinical trial to study the effect of these red grape-derived polyphenols in people experiencing the early stages of AD. Hopefully, this study will identify a new approach to AD treatment. But remember, no one is suggesting that drinking a lot of red wine will protect your brain from AD. It’s clear that too much alcohol can negatively affect the brain. Although the jury is still out, having one glass of cabernet sauvignon nightly may be beneficial.