Mind & Spirit

10 myths and truths about Alzheimer's disease

By: Jacqueline Boulet

Author: Canadian Living

Mind & Spirit

10 myths and truths about Alzheimer's disease

By: Jacqueline Boulet

1. If no one in my family had Alzheimer's, I won't get it, either.
False. There are two known types of the disease: familial Alzheimer's disease (FAD) and sporadic Alzheimer's disease. While it's true that FAD, the hereditary form of the disease, is passed on through genes, it accounts for only about five per cent of cases. The other 95 per cent are sporadic Alzheimer's disease, which may be caused by a variety of factors, including a high-fat diet and the environment. Doctors agree that adopting a healthy lifestyle (getting regular exercise, eating a balanced, low-fat diet and quitting unhealthy habits, such as smoking and drinking excessive amounts of alcohol -- especially before your 40s) is a good way to help prevent the onset of Alzheimer's.

There are three genes associated with early-onset Alzheimer's (doctors attribute most cases to FAD) and virtually everyone who carries them develops the disease. However, experts have developed tests that can identify them with 90 per cent accuracy, so those who carry the genes can investigate treatment options.

2. Only the elderly are at risk.
False. Roughly 90 per cent of people diagnosed with Alzheimer's are over 60 and this risk increases with age. However, people in their 30s, 40s and 50s can develop the disease. Doctors believe the early-onset form of the disease is somehow connected to FAD.

Symptoms of Alzheimer's shouldn't be ignored at any age. Consult a doctor if you notice any of the following in a loved one: confusion when performing daily tasks, such as using the microwave or doing the dishes; putting everyday objects in unusual places, such as the keys in the freezer or the iron in the spice cupboard; or other unusual behaviours that become increasingly common and can't be explained.

3. Women are at higher risk than men for developing Alzheimer's.
True. Although the disease strikes both sexes, of the roughly 364,000 Canadians who currently have Alzheimer's or a related dementia, 68 per cent are women. (Alzheimer's can only be diagnosed with 100 per cent certainty through an autopsy, and not all people with dementia are studied after death, so doctors can't say exactly how many documented cases of dementia are actually Alzheimer's.)

Researchers believe that women get Alzheimer's more frequently than men because, on average, women live six years longer. One in 13 Canadians over 65 has Alzheimer's or a related dementia, but the number soars to one in three for Canadians over 85, so women's longevity is a strong risk factor for the disease. To date, other than age, there is no known reason why more women suffer from Alzheimer's than men.

4. If your memory starts to go, you must be developing Alzheimer's.
False. Memory loss is a natural part of aging -- Alzheimer's disease is not. Though Alzheimer's features memory loss, it is also characterized by other distinct symptoms, such as lack of judgment or reasoning, disorientation in time and place, and changes in mood or behaviour. Alzheimer's affects a person's ability to function on a day-to-day basis: simple tasks, such as brushing his or her teeth or using a microwave, become a challenge, which can contribute to the sudden mood swings that Alzheimer's sufferers sometimes experience. It's important to remember that while they lose their cognitive abilities, Alzheimer's sufferers never lose their feelings -- it's crucial to treat them with the same respect and care that you did before they were diagnosed with the disease.

5. Alzheimer's disease means a downward spiral into confusion, misery and sadness.
False. With the love and support of family and friends, people with Alzheimer's disease can live well post-diagnosis. The past five years have seen several studies conducted on the quality of life in patients with Alzheimer's or related dementia. Researchers found that while caregivers often felt sad or frustrated over their loved ones' memory loss or struggle to perform everyday tasks, the people affected often had less insight into those losses and, therefore, rated their quality of life higher than their caregivers did.

To help an Alzheimer's patient, family members should try to stay calm and remain positive when possible. A little bit of empathy on the part of the caregiver can go a long way toward making the patient's quality of life better -- he or she won't feel so alone or like a burden.

6. Exposure to aluminum causes Alzheimer's disease.
False. Researchers have conducted many studies in the last 20 years on the relationship between exposure to aluminum and Alzheimer's disease. The results of the studies have been so inconsistent that experts conclude that there is only a weak association -- if any -- between the two.

The main factors that may contribute to developing Alzheimer's are lifestyle-related, such as a diet high in processed or fatty foods, which can lead to high cholesterol and high blood pressure. These factors increase the risk of heart disease and also of having mini-strokes, which in turn increase the risk of dementia.

Maintaining healthy eating and exercise habits through your 50s and 60s are good ways to try to prevent Alzheimer's, so improve on those first before you throw out your aluminum pots and pans.

7. Regular mental activity can help keep Alzheimer's at bay.
True. Many studies have shown that people who exercise their minds daily can delay the onset of Alzheimer's disease. A University of Kentucky study on the cognitive abilities of a group of elderly nuns showed a connection between poor linguistic skills early in life and the development of Alzheimer's -- about 90 per cent of those with low linguistic ability in their youth developed the disease. This led scientists to hypothesize that low linguistic ability could be the earliest symptom of an undiagnosed case of Alzheimer's disease.

Most data suggest that mental activities, such as playing bridge or chess or doing crossword puzzles, can be keys to maintaining good mental health. Though they won't reverse the effects of Alzheimer's disease, they can help slow its progress. It is important to remember that a healthy mind is easy to keep active, but a mind already affected by Alzheimer's disease or related dementia is harder to stimulate.

8. Herbal supplements can prevent Alzheimer's disease.
False. A lot of Canadians are riding the natural wave and taking herbal supplements to prevent Alzheimer's disease. Ginkgo biloba is a popular supplement that's often touted as a memory booster. However, only prescription medicines, such as acetylcholinesterase (AChE) inhibitors, have been shown to help restore the chemicals in the brain that control memory, learning and thinking. Plus, ginkgo can be dangerous -- combined with acetylsalicylic acid (ASA) it can cause brain hemorrhaging -- so take it only under your doctor's supervision.

9. All people with Alzheimer's become violent and aggressive.
False. Alzheimer's disease affects every person differently, and aggression is not present in all cases. Behavioural disturbances in Alzheimer's patients can occur at different times in the course of the disease. Agitation or aggression can be related to the presence of psychosis (for example, delusions), physical stimuli (for example, pain) or in response to an event (for example, a caregiver trying to get them to do something they can't) or entering a new environment. Thus, understanding the cause can lead to an approach that can minimize agitation.

Make sure that you treat a person with Alzheimer's disease the same as you would everyone else and that you don't express your anger and frustration with the diagnosis or the disease in front of her. Ask yourself the following questions: Are you feeling frustrated as a caregiver? Do you think she can sense that you are treating her like a child or differently than before? Does she have ample time to talk about her feelings and experiences, or is she slowly fading into the background of day-to-day life? Consider these questions, then identify the patient's feelings. Most importantly, talk to her. With Alzheimer's disease, it's vital for the person affected to know that others understand and have empathy.

10. There is no cure for Alzheimer's disease.
True. It is important to remember that, although there is no cure, there are many treatments available to help ease the symptoms of the disease and the patient's anxiety. Talk to a doctor about which treatment option is best. AChE inhibitors can help restore vital chemicals in the brain and can stabilize and improve memory, language cognition and the ability to interact with people and stay involved in life. The brains of people with Alzheimer's progressively lose the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is important for learning and memory. AChE inhibitors slow down the progress of the disease by slowing the production of the enzyme that breaks down acetylcholine. Aricept, Exelon and Reminyl are three AChE inhibitors approved for use in mild to moderate Alzheimer's cases in Canada.

Researchers are also examining the beta-amyloid protein, which creates toxic plaques in the brain of Alzheimer's patients and is believed to be the main cause of brain-cell damage. It may be one of the keys that will unlock the mystery of the disease, so drugs that help stop the buildup of these proteins are currently being developed.

Ongoing studies are also looking at the role non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ASA, might play in reducing or preventing the effects of Alzheimer's. Research into the preventive role of estrogen and vaccines are also being explored. There has been an explosion of knowledge in the past 25 years, making doctors hopeful that answers are in sight and giving patients new options to fight the effects of the disease until the cure is found.

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10 myths and truths about Alzheimer's disease

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