Alzheimer's Myths

8 Common Alzheimer's Myths
All Rights Reserved

Alzheimer's Myth 1: "Mom can't have Alzheimer's -- she remembers all kinds of things."

Alzheimer's disease affects newly learned information or recent memories first. Memories of the more distant past -- including arcane details such as names and places -- may endure for some time. The majority of longer-held memories don't typically erode noticeably until the middle stage of the disease. That's why someone recently diagnosed can often recall things in the past quite well.

In addition, an Alzheimer's patient has good days and bad days, sometimes appearing to improve or to function in a "back to normal" way for short periods. Sufferers also tend to retain basic social skills during the early stages of the disease -- including the ability to "rise to the occasion" by doing their best to cover up potentially embarrassing or disruptive signs of the disease, like disorientation or memory loss.

Alzheimer's Myth 2: "If you live long enough, you'll get Alzheimer's."

Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia aren't an inevitable part of aging. True, almost everyone forgets things occasionally from middle age on. But not everyone develops a brain disorder that affects cognition (thinking ability), including memory, judgment, and eventually personality and behavior -- which is what Alzheimer's is. Millions of people reach their 70s, 80s, and even 90s with good memories and relatively little decline in mental abilities.

Alzheimer's Myth 3: "Alzheimer's only affects the elderly."

It's true that the vast majority of people with Alzheimer's disease are older than 65, including half of all people older than 85. In fact, for each five-year span beyond 65, the percentage of people with the disease doubles, according to the National Institute on Aging. But a particular rare form of the disease, early-onset Alzheimer's, can affect adults as young as their 30s. It strikes most commonly in the 50s. Early-onset Alzheimer's disease accounts for only between 5 to 10 percent of the more than 4.5 million Americans with Alzheimer's.

Alzheimer's Myth 4: "Most people with Alzheimer's are oblivious to their symptoms."

Typically, those in the early stage of Alzheimer's disease or other common forms of dementia do realize, at least part of the time, that something's wrong. (Whether they recognize it as Alzheimer's is another matter.) Most people with the disorder are aware that they're experiencing memory lapses, for example, or that they're starting to have trouble doing certain familiar tasks (following a favorite card game, cooking a particular recipe). Insight varies by individual, and the degree of awareness can shift from day to day.

Depending on their level of awareness and attitude toward correction, people with Alzheimer's may appreciate being gently told when they make a mistake due to memory loss, disorientation, or another disease symptom. On the other hand, self-awareness of symptoms can make someone frustrated, angry, scared, or socially withdrawn. As the disease progresses and symptoms worsen, awareness of the situation is likely to decline.

Alzheimer's Myth 5: "My parent has Alzheimer's, so I'll probably get it too."

Having a parent or sibling with Alzheimer's does increase your risk for developing the disease compared to someone without a familial link. But it doesn't mean you're likely to get it. Family history only increases your risk slightly.

The role of genetics in the development of Alzheimer's disease is still under investigation. Researchers have identified a "risk gene" called APOE-e4 (apoliprotein E-e4). APOE-e4 is one of three common forms of the APOE-e gene. Everybody inherits some form of that gene. Inheriting APOE-e4 from one or both parents is known to raise the risk of developing Alzheimer's. But how this works is unknown, and it's likely other genes are also involved.

Specific forms of Alzheimer's disease are more likely to run in families: for example, familial Alzheimer's disease, an early-onset type that accounts for fewer than 10 percent of people with Alzheimer's. It's caused by one of several rare gene mutations. More common forms of the disease, those with a "late onset," however, don't demonstrate a clear pattern of heredity.

Genetic tests are available that can identify the form of the APOE gene a person has, as well as the known rare gene mutations. A special lab must run these blood tests; a genetic counselor can assess the risks and benefits of testing for the possibility of a disease for which there is no cure. Most doctors don't recommend routine testing. But you should decide what's right for the person you're caring for and her family.

Alzheimer's Myth 6: "Dad's Alzheimer's will make him an angry and aggressive person, and he will lash out at us eventually."

It's a common worry that a patient with Alzheimer's will eventually turn irate or violent. Aggression is less common than you might think, however. It's not a guaranteed part of one's experience with the disease. It's likely that someone with Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia will feel frustrated or angry at times -- perhaps especially when in an unfamiliar environment or when he's embarrassed -- but he may not express those emotions as violent outbursts.

The disease affects people differently. In fact, some people become more reserved or timid as the disease progresses. There are many ways to manage the full gamut of behaviors prompted by the disease. For those in the later stages of Alzheimer's, the right care may mean a memory care community, where staff are trained to handle common dementia-related behaviors, including anger, aggression and violence.

Alzheimer's Myth 7: "Alzheimer's symptoms are reversible."

A great deal can be done to treat and manage Alzheimer's symptoms, slowing the pace of decline and helping someone with the disease retain independence and quality of life for longer than if these things went unattended. This is especially true with an early diagnosis. Possibilities include medications, environmental cues, cognitive therapy, and treatment for related conditions, such as depression.

Ultimately, however, Alzheimer's is a progressive disease. A person may function fairly well for years in its early stage, or may decline rapidly. But there's currently no way to reverse its progress or cure it.

Alzheimer's Myth 8: "There's no bright side to an Alzheimer's diagnosis."

It would be sugar-coating to suggest that Alzheimer's is not a particularly difficult disease for the sufferer, the caregiver, or the patient's family. It progressively robs her of her brain and, in turn, her personality, and it places a considerable emotional, financial, and practical burden on all those providing care. Many people do, however, come to appreciate some positives that can come from this hard situation.

Many adult children, for example, derive deep personal satisfaction and pride from meeting the challenge head-on and making their parents' last years safe and comfortable. The crisis can be an opportunity to purposefully reconnect and share quiet quality time as a family. Some people realize that "now's the time," before a parent's memory deteriorates further, to record a family history or sit down together and identify the faces in old photographs.

Another silver lining: Alzheimer's diagnosis often brings together scattered or estranged family members as they work in concert to provide care.

Paula Spencer Scott

Paula Spencer Scott is the author of Surviving Alzheimer's: Practical Tips and Soul-Saving Wisdom for Caregivers and much of the Alzheimer's and caregiving content on Caring. See full bio

5 months, said...

Although this article may be helpful, there is no silver lining to this disease. Having two in laws with this has been hard on the family both emotionally and financially. More research is needed to find a way to stop or cure. Otherwise, statistically our nation will be facing significant financial consequences in the not too distant future. Suggest readers log into the work on the research progress at the Hudson Alpha Institute. Very enlightening and concerning.

about 3 years, said...

For my fellow Italian bloggers: (mom's maiden name was Lucia Maria Livoi..her mother was born in Italy..Naples, I think). Anyway, when mom was a little girl, Nonna used to sing to her "Parla mi d'Amore Mariu.." and that song stayed with us. We would sing it at regular intervals growing up. Well, yesterday, my mother started to sing it, at full volume, every word perfect in Italian, right in tune, her voice high and girlishly clear. I must tell you, everyone on the Dementia Unit stopped to listen. Mother sang it twice through. Then, when she'd finished, the 'fog' rolled back in...and she said to me, "Whose dog is that?" motioning to the corner, where of course there was no pooch. To all Alz/dementia caregivers I say this: Cherish those wonderful moments, everyone. Like diamonds, they are sparkling flashes of clarity in the midst of the sadness. Listen to the songs, and remember your family member for the music and... the love they gave you all those years..

about 3 years, said...

My Dear Ric's Wife, You speak very eloquently... I've been visiting this web-site for nearly 6 years. I'm sole caregiver for my mother, and at one time father as well. Dad passed nearly 3 years ago... I find the site quite informative... Much information, some usable, some not. I encourage everyone to use all the tools available and use what you can, and what you can't use now you may in the future, or you may be able to help someone else that it will be useful for. I don't get on here too frequently but when I do I get lost for hours reading comments... Reading someone else's triumphs, trials and tribulations makes my burden seem a bit easier... I want to thank everyone who contributes to these blogs no matter what it is... good, bad, happy, sad, it all has a place here and no matter what you write someone will find help and or inspiration to continue this journey we are on.... As always, prayers of peace and love to all of us on this journey... Sincerely, Roger

about 3 years, said...

Reading over these comments - some heartbreaking, some hopeful, there is no doubt whatever in my mind: each person who suffers from dementia, be it Alz or Lewy Body or vascular, or whatever..should be evaluated individually. WHile the progression and path of dementias are depressingly similar, there are still hopeful signs on the horizon, as caregivers, doctors and legislators partner up and PUSH for more research money, and better support for all. The insurance industry, (and I used the word industry intentionally) needs to re-tool and make adjustments to accommodate the special needs of people who suffer from these illnesses - and the people who look after them. Mom called me four times yesterday to ask what day it was, and the date. She simply could not retain that information. Yet when I visited that afternoon, several hours before her cll, I mentioned in passing, that hubby Ric had a birthday the next day. Three hours later our phone rang. It was mom. She asked to speak to Ric, then, in a clear, sweet, girlish voice (she's 92) she sang "Happy Birthday"..word perfect, tune just right. Which proves my point: there are connections that hold fast, and ones that don't... in the memory-files of the brains of those we love. Each person is different in what and... how they remember. I choose to stay aware, and keep that in mind. Laugh when I can, and treasure what still remains of mom's recollections. It is a comfort on the trying days when mom will look at me and ask, "Who came in and replaced my telephone/cat/photographs?" Because down the road, my eyes will fill up when she starts to sing Happy Birthday.." to my dear husband.

about 3 years, said...

Nothing, it was very good and informative. Actually, I have been reading everything I could since my mother began her dementia, and this was the most informative.

over 3 years, said...

When a ninety year old woman asks fdor help in deciding how to undress and then what garments to put on,confuses shoes with slippers,has stopped reading the newspaper,just can't, and loses her usual acumen in playing cars,short term memory,severe,not joking but is this advanced Alzheimers'?

about 4 years, said...

I'd like to share this with other on the blog, so (please forgive) I am posting it on more than one page: You Tube has an excellent short film, "Experience 12 minutes in Alzheimer's Dementia.." done by a news reporter who wanted to get a feeling for what it must be like to have AD dementia, with your senses and mobility impaired and compromised. They taped her eyes, put headphones on her head emitting constant chatter noise, taped up her hands, weighted her legs and simulated the kinds of visual/sensory and navigational physical challenges people with AD likely must deal with on a daily basis. She was then asked to perform two simple tasks. At the end of the experiment, not only was she unable to do it, she had dissolved in tears of rage and frustration. She said when it was over that she would never, ever again view people with AD in the same way! Check it out, it is well worth seeing, everyone.

about 4 years, said...

I just turned 96. I wish I could take out my marbles, polish them, code them so as to not lose them and store them in a safe and secure place. But, alas, all I can do is to cross my fingers, toes, eyes and whatever else are crossable and keep my rosary is always handy. Though the article is very helpful, when you are staring at 4 more years to the century mark, it (also) crosses my mind of what perhaps might be the inevitable descent into the basement of whatever intellect that houses my brain. Meanwhile I live day to day and looking at tomorrow as the distant future but wistfully. I could write reams of what I have done and what I do now to retain what I've got ....

about 4 years, said...

To the lady in Ireland (adiec?) I wonder if any activities can be adapted to her husband being in bed over the weekend? For example, I know one lady with early Alz who can still get out and about to her day care senior routine during the week, and during our recent spell of extreme cold and icy weather here in NYC, the news advised seniors to stay indoors if possible. (Icy sidewalks and high winds were especially treacherous) So, we got her out of bed and into a comfy chair - just going from horizontal to vertical was a big plus! We did a scaled down tidy and groom, combed her hair, wash-clothed her face and hands, and that minor activity was enough to pique her interest. Lethargy and non participation can be a challenge. I have variously read to early stage AD clients from the daily paper, put the tv where they can look at the news, switched on the radio for music, and puttered around the house, which often will elicit a response and engagement from them - if the patient is friendly and comfortable with these sorts of things.

about 4 years, said...

My Husband goes to day care three times a week. At the weekend he does not want to get out of bed as he is tired. The weather here in Ireland is very wet at the moment so getting him up does not matter so much. Should I make him get up and get dressed or just leave him as he does not read the paper anymore?

about 4 years, said...

It showed me the signs I missed in the early stages,

about 4 years, said...

Indeed, we were a fractured family for decades. Old wounds are now being healed. Even, ironically enough, Mom's unwillingness to face the past, now has become a desired goal - as her memory fades in many areas! Val and I text and e.mail: when we last spoke with her, who did what during the last visit, humorous moments that took place, items Mom wanted, ideas to help her better cope. At one point after a very difficult conversation, she mused, "I must be a great nuisance to you both.." I put my hand on hers and said, "You are our mother. We will be here to look after things - hey...after you spent much of your life taking care of US? No worry! "

almost 5 years, said...

Thank you so much! I needed this!

over 5 years, said...

Myth 5 is the one that scares me. My mother, her younger brother and sister all have had Alzheimers. My aunt had earlier onset (in her early 60's when it became obvious) and my uncle was early 70's. Mom's triggered within 6 months of my brother dying of cancer at 50. Mom's doctor mentioned tramatic events - physical and/or emotional can trigger Alzheimers. Based on the family history I'm scared to death that I too will develop this terrible disease. We have had mom at our home for the last 4 1/2 years. She'll be 87 this month and our prayers are that she will pass away quietly at home with us.

over 5 years, said...

Last paragraph.

over 5 years, said...

Everything, this is a great article & website. I have friends struggling with aging parents with Alzheimers. I want to support them in any way I can. I'm constantly printing out articles from your website & sending or forwarding them on. This is such a horrible disease. I was very fortunate that my parents lived into their 90's & were both very "sharp" until the very end. My 93 yr old mom completed her taxes a wk before she passed away from natural causes. Pretty amazing. Keep up the good work. Thanks