Despite high-visibility efforts toward Alzheimer’s treatment and cure, the statistics around the disease continue to be staggering. Almost 6 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s, with another untold millions of family and friends directly impacted. While heart disease fatalities in the US declined 11% between 2000 and 2015, Alzheimer’s related deaths have increased in that same timeframe by almost 125%. Yet despite the fact that it impacts so many, Alzheimer’s continues to be somewhat misunderstood in terms of its causes, implications, and outcomes. Here are some of the myths and misperceptions we hear the most:
- Alzheimer’s and dementia are the same thing. While the two are related, Alzheimer’s is a specific disease that is the leading cause of dementia, representing 60- 80% of all dementia sufferers. Dementia, by contrast, is not a disease unto itself but rather a catch-all term that refers to its associated symptoms (confusion and memory loss, for example). There are many conditions other than Alzheimer’s which involve 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.
- Alzheimer’s can be a natural part of the aging process. While almost 40% of people over 65 experience some form of age-related memory loss, a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s falls outside this category. Alzheimer’s is a degenerative and incurable brain disease caused by the progressive build-up of amyloid plaques in the brain – not a normal aspect of aging, and not to be confused with the mild cognitive impairment sometimes associated with an aging brain.
- Alzheimer’s only strikes elderly people. While the vast majority of sufferers are over the age of 65 – 5.5M out of 5.7 M Americans – the remaining 200,000 are people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s living with what is known as Early Onset Alzheimer’s.
- Alzheimer’s is serious but not fatal. The sad fact is that Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the US; combined with other dementia-related illness, it kills more people each year than breast and prostate cancer combined. Its devastating effect on the brain causes problems with breathing, swallowing, and other vital body functions. Alzheimer’s also carries with it a high instance of risky behaviors, such as hypothermia or bad falls caused by wandering out of the house.
- My Dad had Alzheimer’s, which means I’m probably going to get it too. While researchers continue to explore the role that genetics may play in an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, the fact remains that familial Alzheimer’s disease accounts for less than 5% of all documented cases.
Want more information? The Alzheimer’s Association is an excellent resource offering comprehensive information and support for both patients and families impacted by Alzheimer’s.