June is World Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month, and James E. Galvin, MD, MPH, a leading neuroscientist and associate dean at Florida Atlantic University’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine, has compiled a list of myths and truths about the disease.
According to Galvin, some myths about Alzheimer’s include:
- Memory loss is part of normal aging. (False) — Although thinking and moving more slowly is a normal sign of aging, forgetfulness generally is not. People usually can remember general information, such as where they put their car keys, or they know where to quickly find the answers. However, consistent, daily problems with learning and remembering new information may be an early sign of Alzheimer’s.
- All causes of memory problems are related to Alzheimer’s disease. (False) — Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of memory problems, but it is not the only one. The disease is only one of the many conditions that affect a person’s memory. Conditions like Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, or vitamin deficiencies can all affect one’s thinking abilities.
- Feeling sad is nothing to be worried about. (False) — If depression develops later in life, it could be an early sign of Alzheimer’s. Feelings of sadness, loss of energy or interest in hobbies, and changes in sleep or appetite can appear two to three years before noticeable memory loss. If this occurs, it should be discussed with a doctor.
- It’s all genetic. (False, at least partially) — Most memory disorders are sporadic, which means they appear randomly in the aging population. Old age is the greatest risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s. However, about 2 to 5 percent of Alzheimer’s cases are caused by genetic mutations, most of which are early-onset and diagnosed in people younger than 65.
- Fish oil, vitamins, Gingko and other supplements are effective treatments for memory loss. (False) — In several scientific studies, all of these supplements failed to demonstrate significant benefits in treating memory loss or reducing Alzheimer’s symptoms.
According to Galvin, other common statements have been supported by scientific facts. For instance, people who believe their memory is worsening, even when they do well on memory tests, are at a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s. A risk factor does not mean a person will necessarily develop Alzheimer’s. Rather, it suggests there is an increased probability, and further evaluations should be discussed with a care provider.
Exercise, diet, and mental activities may partially reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Studies have shown that those who play games, stay socially engaged, try new activities, exercise at least three times per week, and eat a heart-healthy diet (including whole grains, fruits, fish, vegetables) may have a reduced risk of developing the disease. It is unclear if these activities really can protect each individual, but Galvin notes that when in doubt, a healthy and active lifestyle will benefit a person’s quality of life.
Whether or not Alzheimer’s disease can be prevented is still uncertain, but Galvin suspects it can. While the two strongest risk factors — age and family history — can’t be changed, research has shown that other risk factors can be altered, including insulin resistance, obesity, low muscle strength, and poor dietary patterns, among others.
Galvin has developed the Quick Dementia Rating System, a tool that uses evidence-based methods to differentiate individuals with and without dementia. The system can be completed by a layperson in three to five minutes and can detect when dementia is present, as well as identify its stage, including very mild, mild, moderate, or severe.