Myths about Alzheimer’s disease

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By Monica Ruehling
Family Caregiver Program Coordinator
Lincoln Trail Area Agency on Aging

 The advancement of technology is ever amazing me. Information about any given subject is just a few keystrokes away; “google” has become part of everyday language. Just type in a particular subject topic and information about the subject instantaneity appears.
Of course, if computers and Internet aren’t a person’s forte, television can also inform. News channels now air a variety of programs 24 hours a day, covering topics from entertainment to current events to health information.
Even with all of this information at the touch of a computer mouse or with a click of the remote control, it is also still amazing how many people do not understand or fail to educate themselves about the world around them.
When an individual or family member receives a medical diagnosis, every possible resource should be sought to find out more about that particular subject. The resources should also be used to educate and dispel any known myths.
Many myths surround Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia. It is prevalent in the population; 5.3 million Americans have the disease according to the Alzheimer’s Association (www.alz.org), and the number is only expected to rise as our population ages.
The Alzheimer’s Association lists the disease as the sixth leading cause of death in adults aged 65 and older, after heart disease, cancer, strokes, accidents and diabetes.
Alzheimer’s disease attacks the brain and results in impaired memory, thinking, and behavior.  The disease gradually destroys a person’s ability to think, reason, recall memories or to make rational judgments. Working on signals, or lack of signals from the brain, the body begins to change and shut down as the disease progresses.
Because the origins and the course of Alzheimer’s disease remains a mystery, it comes as no surprise that it is still a very misunderstood disease by both the medical community and the family caregivers who must care for the individual stricken with the disease.
Since it is such a complex and frightening disease, it is only natural to have misconceptions about dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. These myths only add to the surrounding mystery and stigmas,  and many times block an individual or family member from completely finding out the truth to better care for the person.
Myth: Alzheimer’s disease only afflicts the elderly. Reality: It may be more commonly diagnosed in older people, but early onset or younger-onset occurs in people younger than 65. Experts estimate 200,000 people in their 30s, 40s and 50s have younger-onset Alzheimer’s.
Myth: Memory loss happens as a person ages. Reality: While there is some truth to this as memory loss does occur to a degree as a person ages, there is a difference in recalling memories and information and true dementia. Some elderly people in 80s, 90s or older do not develop dementia. The brain tends to age like other organs in the body, and the delay in retrieval of information is more noticed as a person ages.
Myth: People with Alzheimer’s disease cannot understand what is going on around them. Reality:  Just as in every disease or condition, every individual is different. Alzheimer’s disease and other related dementias effects a person’s ability to communicate and make sense of the world around them.
However, the person still has the same feelings and often these feelings can be hurt if the person is not treated with dignity and respect in their care. While they are not able to reason and make sound judgments because of the disease, an individual with Alzheimer’s can still participate in many everyday activities.
Myth: All people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease will become violent and aggressive. Reality: Again, every individual is different. Every person diagnosed with the disease does not become aggressive. Many times what it viewed as violent or aggressive behaviors is the person’s way of trying to communicate and reach out for help. The disease does affect the person’s ability to communicate and coupled with the loss of memory and control, the person may react in a way that is frustrating or even frightening to them and those around them.
Myth: There are treatments available to stop the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Reality: At this time, there is no treatment to cure, delay or stop the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. FDA approved drugs may be prescribed to temporarily slow the worsening of the symptoms, but these medications cannot cure the disease.
Myth: Alzheimer’s disease is not fatal. Reality: It is fatal; it is a life limiting illness. The disease destroys brain cells and causes memory loss and changes, erratic behaviors, and in the end, total loss of body functions.
In the month of November, designated as National Alzheimer’s Month, awareness about the disease will help to put an end to the myths so that care for the individual, treatment, and a cure are instead the focus.
With any diagnosis, it’s important to get the real facts and not get caught up in the rumors and fabrications. The truth with Alzheimer’s disease is to learn about the disease, seek help and to treat people with the disease with respect and dignity.