7 Myths About Alzheimer’s Disease

(WebMD.com) It’s one of the most feared brain diseases: Alzheimer’s. It robs people of their memory bit by bit, has no cure — and with an aging population, shows no sign of slowing down.

The media is riddled with stories about its causes, symptoms, and prevention. But some of those reports don’t tell the whole story.

Here are seven common misunderstandings about Alzheimer’s disease and the truths behind them.

1. Myth: Some memory loss is normal.

True, many of us find that our memory isn’t what it once was as we age. But it’s important to distinguish between a busy mind and true memory loss, says James E. Galvin, MD, MPH.

“It may take you longer to remember where you put something or a name, but you’re able to get back to it. That’s not memory loss, that’s aging,” says Galvin, a neurology and psychiatry professor at New York University’s Langone Medical Center.

When should you be concerned? When changes in thinking occur.

“If you’re forgetting important things like loved ones’ names or if [memory loss] impacts your ability to function or there are things you can no longer do because of memory problems, seek evaluation,” says John Ringman, MD, associate clinical professor of neurology at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine.

2. Myth: Exercise, diet, and mental activities prevent Alzheimer’s disease.

Although many stories in the popular press have advanced the idea that a healthy lifestyle can help prevent Alzheimer’s, the scientific evidence is unclear.

Studies have, indeed, found that eating a healthy diet, engaging in aerobic exercise on a regular basis, staying socially active, and keeping your mind engaged with games and puzzles are linked to lower odds of getting Alzheimer’s. Studies also suggest that “these same lifestyle changes may reduce the progression of symptoms for people who already have Alzheimer’s disease,” Galvin says.

But “it’s not entirely clear that the effect applies in individual cases,” Galvin says. “I’ve known Twinkie-eating couch potatoes who don’t get it and vegan marathon runners who do.”

An even bigger issue here is causation vs. correlation. That is, healthy lifestyles and less likelihood of getting Alzheimer’s disease may be linked (that’s correlation), but it’s not clear that lifestyle is driving that link (that’s causation).

It could be that people with healthy lifestyle habits have other traits working to their advantage. In short, there’s no proof that lifestyle prevents Alzheimer’s disease.

Still, there is no downside to eating healthfully, staying physically and mentally active, and nurturing your relationships. Even if it isn’t proven to prevent Alzheimer’s disease, it’s certainly good for you and your quality of life.

“My approach to that is that it’s a good idea for your general health and there is some evidence that aerobic exercise helps cognition,” Ringman says.

3. Myth: Only old people get Alzheimer’s.

It is true that age is the biggest risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease: One out of eight people 65 and older have it.

But there is such a thing as early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, which starts before age 65. It’s rare, accounting for only 5% to 10% of all U.S. Alzheimer’s cases — about 200,000 people.

“People can get it in their 20s, although typical [for early onset] is in the 40s and 50s,” Ringman says.

Early-onset Alzheimer’s disease often has a strong genetic link.

4. Myth: Alzheimer’s is all about genetics.

There are gene mutations that are linked to Alzheimer’s. But there’s more to Alzheimer’s disease than having a rogue gene.

Take the APOE gene, for example. It has several variations, including one that is linked to greater risk of getting Alzheimer’s disease. But not everyone with that APOE variation gets Alzheimer’s, and not everyone with Alzheimer’s has that APOE variation. And that’s just one of several genes linked to Alzheimer’s risk.

So clearly, genetics isn’t everything.

Usually, Galvin says, there is a strong family history with people of every generation getting it at same age.

“But, generally [genetics] are not a very large risk factor,” he says.

Researchers are hunting for more genetic clues. Meanwhile, keep this in mind: There is not one Alzheimer’s gene that seals your fate, and the biggest risk factor for Alzheimer’s, by far, is aging.

5. Myth: Depression causes Alzheimer’s disease.

Depression can be an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease, but it’s not proven to cause Alzheimer’s disease.

Depression is common. It affects nearly 15 million Americans, including 6.5 million people aged 65 or older.

But not everyone who is depressed gets Alzheimer’s disease. The exact link between the two conditions isn’t clear.

The degree of the depression may matter. “The kind of depression that precedes Alzheimer’s disease is milder, whereas people with depression [without Alzheimer’s] tend to be more severely affected. A suicidal Alzheimer’s patient is extremely rare,” Ringman says.

6. Myth: Dementia is the same as Alzheimer’s disease.

Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe a loss of memory caused by changes in the brain. Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, but it’s not the only one.

“Everyone with Alzheimer’s disease has dementia but not everyone with dementia has Alzheimer’s disease,” Galvin says.

There are more than 70 different causes of dementia, including strokes, Parkinson’s disease, Lewy body dementia, and Pick’s disease.

7. Myth: Dietary supplements protect the brain.

There is no good evidence showing that dietary supplements prevent Alzheimer’s.

“At least in the supplements and vitamins and minerals that have been vigorously tested, they have uniformly failed to show any benefit,” Galvin says.

The dietary supplements most tested include fish oil, ginkgo biloba, and high-dose vitamins. Other supplements have not been as thoroughly tested for brain-protecting power.

Always tell your doctor about any supplements you’re taking or any memory problems you’re having.

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