True or False? Dispelling the Myths of Alzheimer’s Disease

By Carol Combs, MSW, Oxford’s Memory Care Program Coordinator

Facts about Alzheimer’s disease:

  • Every 67 seconds, someone in the United States develops the disease.
  • As of today, an estimated 5.4 million people have the disease.
  • 1 in 8 people over the age of 65 have the disease.

With more Americans diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, it’s important to understand the truth about the disease. Here are some of the top myths according to the Alzheimer’s Association1.

Myth 1: Memory loss is a normal part of aging.

As we age, it is normal to have some forgetfulness, but Alzheimer’s is more than occasional memory loss. Alzheimer’s disease destroys brain cells, causing irreversible damage. This affects the person’s ability to think, their memory, judgment and eventually personality and behavior. If memory problems are an issue, you should consult your physician. They can tell you if it is Alzheimer’s, or another issue that can be treated.

Myth 2: Alzheimer’s only affects the elderly.

Early onset Alzheimer’s can strike people in their 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. However, the vast majority of people with Alzheimer’s disease are over age 65, including half of all people over age 85. For each 5 year span beyond age 65, the percentage of people with Alzheimer’s doubles.

Myth 3: Using aluminum cans or pots and pans can lead to Alzheimer’s.

Years ago, aluminum was a suspected cause of Alzheimer’s due to the high exposure of aluminum everyday. Since then, studies have failed to confirm any role for aluminum causing Alzheimer’s.

Myth 4: Flu shots increase risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Several studies have shot down that myth. These studies found flu shots can reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. For instance, the Canadian Medical Journal2 reported this finding on November 27, 2001. The authors found that older adults who got the flu shot seemed to have a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease compared to those who didn’t receive the flu shot.

Myth 5: There are treatments available to stop the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

Right now, there is no treatment to cure, delay or stop the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. FDA approved drugs temporarily slow worsening of symptoms for about 6-12 months, on average. But, this has only worked for about 50% of those who take them.

Myth 6: If your parent has Alzheimer’s, you will likely have it as well.

Having a parent with Alzheimer’s does increase your risk for developing it compared to someone with no family link. But, family history only increases your risk slightly. Researchers have identified a risk gene called APOE-e4. It is one of three common forms of the APOE-e gene and everyone inherits some form of that gene. Inheriting APOE-e4 from one or both parents is known to raise the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. However, Familial Alzheimer’s disease, an early onset type, accounts for fewer than 10% of people with Alzheimer’s.

Myth 7: Alzheimer’s makes people agitated and aggressive.

Aggression is not a guaranteed part of Alzheimer’s disease and is less common that you might think. It is likely someone with Alzheimer’s will feel frustrated or angry at times, but it is not always expressed as violent outbursts. Over stimulation, an unfamiliar environment or being unable to express a need may lead to agitation. Identifying the triggers causing agitation can prevent the acceleration to aggressive behavior.

References:

1 http://www.alz.org/alzheimers_disease_myths_about_alzheimers.asp

2 René Verreault, Danielle Laurin, Joan Lindsay, Gaston De Serres. “Past exposure to vaccines and subsequent risk of Alzheimer’s disease.” Canadian Medical Journal Volume 165. Issue 11 (2001): Online article http://www.cmaj.ca/content/165/11/1495.full?eaf.