Despite the fact that it touches more and more families every day, there’s a fair amount of misinformation and misperception about dementia – what it is and where it comes from. Starting with the fact that the term itself is not a disease: the word dementia refers to a set of symptoms that be caused by a variety of conditions. We work hard in our communities to help educate families as to the common myths and misperceptions about dementia. Here are the ones that we find crop up most often:
- Dementia and Alzheimer’s are the same thing. While related, Alzheimer’s is a specific disease that is the leading cause of dementia, representing 60- 80% of all dementia sufferers. There are many other conditions involving dementia, including vascular dementia, Parkinson’s Disease, frontotemporal dementia, and dementia with Lewy Bodies. Its symptoms can also result from a singular event, like a traumatic brain injury.
- Dementia is a natural part of the aging process. Although almost 40% of people over 65 experiences some form of memory loss, there are several characteristics of dementia that set it apart from normal wear and tear on the brain. Occasional difficulty coming up with words is considered normal, for example; a senior who exhibits frequent hesitation and word substitutions would be recommended for evaluation. Similarly, not being able to recall details of a distant event is not uncommon; having trouble remembering whom you had lunch with yesterday would be considered a red flag. Generally speaking, forgetfulness isn’t associated with damage to the brain, whereas actual dementia results from issues like poor blood flow, amyloid plaques, and vascular abnormalities. Obviously, any new behavior that cause alarm should be professionally evaluated.
- Dementia is only about memory loss. Although dementia typically starts with short-term memory issues, it usually affects people much more broadly, and can cause profound confusion, disorientation, balance issues, mood swings, and personality changes. Again, these symptoms vary, depending on the cause. We go into greater detail on the subject elsewhere on our blog.
- Dementia is hereditary. While there are rare forms of Alzheimer’s that pass through families, 99% are not inherited; in fact, the vast majority of the estimated 47 million dementia-related cases reported worldwide are not directly tied to genetics. Instead, lifestyle and simple aging are thought to be major contributing factors in our risk for developing dementia.
- There’s nothing we can do to prevent the onset of dementia. It’s true that, in the case of Alzheimer’s, our risk doubles every year after the age of 65. And our risk goes up another 50% after age 85. Doctors still don’t know conclusively why aging seems to drive these numbers. In the case of vascular dementia, preexisting conditions like diabetes and heart disease play a significant role in risk, because of their affect on blood circulation in the brain.
That said, more and more studies are proving that there are a number of meaningful lifestyle changes we can make to greatly reduce our chances of developing symptoms. The good news is that they involve steps we should already be taking, like exercising regularly; eating a heart- and brain-healthy diet; and eliminating smoking. Research also shows that keeping the aging brain active and engaged by seeking out new kinds of learning also forges new neural pathways that seem to stave off the disease.
For more in-depth information on dementia, head to the Alzheimer’s Association.