More than 6 million Americans live with Alzheimer’s disease in any given year. It’s the most common type of dementia and typically starts slowly. Symptoms gradually worsen over time, to the point that problems with memory, thinking and behavior interfere with everyday tasks. There are three general stages to Alzheimer’s disease.
In the early stage, people may be able to function independently during daily life – going to work, driving, being social – but may have difficulties remembering names, coming up with the right words, misplacing something valuable or forgetting something that was just read, for example.
Middle-stage Alzheimer’s can be the longest and can last for years. As a person’s brain cells are damaged and break down, they can become forgetful, moody, withdrawn, confused and undergo personality changes that make them suspicious and at times delusional. In this stage, the person needs assistance but is still able to participate in daily activities.
In late-stage Alzheimer’s, the person needs around-the-clock care and assistance as their dementia becomes so severe they are unable to react to the environment around them or eventually, to control their own movement. Here are five myths about Alzheimer’s disease:
MYTH #1: Memory loss is part of getting old.
FACT: Alzheimer’s is more than occasional memory loss. While it is normal to have occasional memory problems as you age, Alzheimer’s is a disease that causes brain cells to malfunction and die. There is a difference between Alzheimer’s symptoms and normal memory loss. Here are 10 warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease, per the Alzheimer’s Association:
- Memory loss that disrupts your daily life
- Challenges planning and solving problems
- Difficulty completing familiar tasks
- Confusion with time or place
- Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships
- New problems with words in speaking or writing
- Misplaced things and losing the ability to retrace steps
- Decreased or poor judgement
- Withdrawal from work or social activities
- Change in mood and personality
MYTH #2: Only old people can get Alzheimer’s.
FACT: While most people with Alzheimer’s are over the age of 65, there’s a small portion of people that do get Alzheimer’s at a younger age. People in their 30s, 40s and 50s make up about 5% of the people with Alzheimer’s. This development of Alzheimer’s disease in younger adults is called early onset Alzheimer’s, and can be genetic.
MYTH #3: There are treatments for Alzheimer’s.
FACT: There is no treatment that will stop the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, or slow how fast it spreads. There are treatments that can help address the symptoms of the disease. Medications can help with memory, language skills and some thinking and behavioral problems – but they don’t work for everyone.
MYTH #4: Alzheimer’s isn’t deadly.
FACT: Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. Alzheimer’s disease can cause people to forget to drink or eat or cause risky behaviors like wandering into a dangerous situation. The disease can also cause physical problems, like issues swallowing or breathing problems that can lead to pneumonia.
MYTH #5: Experts know what causes Alzheimer’s.
FACT: The exact cause of Alzheimer’s disease is not known, though it may be a combination of your genes, your environment and your lifestyle. Rumors that cooking with aluminum pans, drinking from aluminum cans, using artificial sweeteners, having silver dental fillings or the flu shot can cause Alzheimer’s disease are not true.
This content has been reviewed and approved by Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker, an associate medical director at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.
This article is the ninth in a year-long series explaining how to manage chronic conditions that can be costly for families and the health care system. For more information about the series, click here.
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