Although Alzheimer's disease (AD) impacts more than five million Americans and 15 million caregivers year-round, the nation is especially focused on the disease this month as it observes "National Alzheimer's Disease and Awareness Month."
James E. Galvin, M.D., M.P.H., one of the most prominent neuroscientists in the country, and a professor of clinical biomedical science in the Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine and a professor in the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing at Florida Atlantic University, has developed eight myths and truths about AD to shed light on this form of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior.
Galvin also has developed the Quick Dementia Rating System (QDRS), which uses an evidence-based methodology to validly and reliably differentiate individuals with and without dementia. It can be completed by a layperson in three to five minutes, and can detect when dementia is present, and accurately stage the condition to determine if it is very mild, mild, moderate or severe.
Myths and truths about AD:
1. Memory loss is part of normal aging.
False: Although people may do things slower as they get older, forgetfulness is generally not part of growing older. It may take longer to remember where you put your keys, recall what you had for breakfast, or remember your appointments for the day, but the answer usually comes back to you, or you know where to quickly find the answer. Consistent, daily problems with learning and remembering new information may be an early sign of Alzheimer's disease. Interestingly, although many cognitive abilities seem to slow down as we age, vocabulary (learning and using new words) continues to grow throughout life.
2. A little sadness is nothing to be worried about.
False: Depression is a common symptom affecting many older adults. If depression develops in later life, this could be an early sign of Alzheimer's disease, beginning perhaps two to three years before any noticeable memory loss. If you feel sad, blue or depressed, have a loss of energy or interest in your hobbies or activities, have changes in sleep or appetite, or thoughts of guilt, worthlessness, or low self-esteem, you should discuss this with your doctor. Depression is a very treatable condition, and no one should have to suffer.
3. All causes of memory problems are due to Alzheimer's disease.
False: While Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of memory problems, it is just one of more than a hundred conditions that can affect a person's memory and thinking abilities. Many diseases that affect the brain such as Parkinson's disease, strokes, or multiple sclerosis can affect memory. Many conditions that affect other parts of your body can also affect your memory such as diabetes, thyroid disease, or vitamin deficiencies. Lastly, many prescription and over-the-counter medications, either by themselves or in combination can affect memory, thinking, attention, and concentration. You should always bring all your medications, including over-the-counter medicines, vitamins, and supplements with you to your doctor appointments so that a thorough review can be done.
4. It's all in the genes.
False (sort of): Most memory disorders such as Alzheimer's disease are sporadic, that is they occur randomly in the aging population. Some research suggests that if your mother had Alzheimer's disease, you may be at an increased risk, but still the greatest risk factor is old age. By age 85, roughly half of older adults have Alzheimer's disease. That means of course, that the other half do not. However, about 2 to 5 percent of cases of Alzheimer's disease are genetic caused by gene mutations. Most of these are early onset (younger than age 65). If you are concerned and there is a strong family history of Alzheimer's disease, discuss this with your doctor.
5. Exercise, diet and mental activities may reduce my risk of getting Alzheimer's disease.
True (sort of): Large studies of populations suggest that people who play games (checkers, chess, cards), stay socially engaged (visit museums, attend concerts), try new activities (paint, music), exercise at least three times per week, and eat a heart healthy diet (whole grains, fruits, fish, vegetables) may reduce the risk of getting Alzheimer's disease by as much as 50 percent. Additional studies suggest that these same lifestyle changes may reduce the progression of symptoms for people who already have Alzheimer's disease. However, on an individual basis, it is unclear if any of these activities really protects us or is it that people who are not doing these activities already have signs of the disease. On the other hand, a healthy, active lifestyle surely can't hurt. A good rule of thumb to remember is what's good for your heart, is also good for your brain.
6. Fish oil, high dose vitamins, Gingko and other supplements are effective treatments for memory problems.
False: In numerous studies, each of these supplements have failed to show any benefit in treating memory loss or reducing the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. Whether these supplements can reduce the risk of developing disease has not been rigorously studied. If you look and listen carefully, all advertisements for supplements include the following two statements: "These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration," and "This product is not intended to diagnose, prevent, treat, or cure disease." Look for these sentences; they're there, usually in small print or spoken very fast by the announcer!
7. My math skills are not as good as they once were, but that's to be expected.
False: Although it may take longer to balance your checkbook or figure out a tip at a restaurant, you should continue to be able to do these problems as you get older. New trouble with problem solving, making decisions, or following through with a plan may be an early sign of Alzheimer's disease.
8. I should be worried because I am less interested in socializing or doing my hobbies.
True: Hobbies and interest change over time. However, when a person develops a loss of interest in previous hobbies and activities, withdrawal from work or social activities, or begins having trouble doing familiar tasks (for example, baking, sewing, playing Bridge), this may represent the beginning of memory problems such as Alzheimer's disease or mood problems such as depression.
Florida Atlantic University