Aging; Brain

Alzheimer’s disease and dementia: Sorting myths from reality

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Learning as much as you can about a dementia or Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis can help you make more confident health care decisions.

There are many misconceptions about dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Some people may think these terms are interchangeable, but they aren't.

Learning about the conditions – their differences and similarities – can empower patients, families, and caregivers to make more confident healthcare decisions.

Dementia is an umbrella term for a group of brain disorders that affect memory, decision-making, and behavior. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, accounting for 60% to 80% of cases. It is thought to be caused by beta-amyloid proteins that clump together and build up in the brain, and neurofibrillary tangles, which are accumulations of tau protein, damaging or destroying nerve cells.

The second most common form of dementia is vascular dementia. This can be caused by damage to blood vessels or blockages that lead to strokes or bleeds within the brain. There are many other types of dementia. Lewy body dementia, caused by abnormal deposits of protein in the brain, is another common form. 

"I look forward to a day when we can prevent dementia, instead of treating it after the fact."

Tara Duval, M.D.

All dementias regardless of the underlying cause have one thing in common. They all result in cognitive decline that ultimately impairs one’s function and ability to carry out normal daily activities.

Currently, there is no cure for dementia, but our specialists at UT Southwestern’s Peter O'Donnell Jr. Brain Institute and our Alzheimer’s Disease Center are leading the search for new therapies, evaluating patients and conducting scientific research on the causes of Alzheimer’s disease. A recent study, conducted by UT Southwestern and published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, suggests that exercising several times a week may slow the progression of dementia and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s Disease. Earlier efforts have focused on isolating the molecular genesis of the disease.

Common dementia and Alzheimer's myths – busted

Myth 1: Dementia is a normal part of aging

While your risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s increases as you age, dementia is not an inevitable part of the aging process. The World Health Organization estimates that 5% to 8% of people older than 60 have dementia. That number increases to at least 40% for people older than 80.

And while our country’s population is aging, a 2016 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed the incidence of Alzheimer’s has actually decreased over the past 30 years. The authors couldn’t completely explain the decrease but did find that risk reduction was observed only in people who had at least a high school diploma. They also noted a few trends, particularly a decrease in the risk of dementia associated with stroke, atrial fibrillation, and heart failure. 

Myth 2: Memory loss is the only symptom

When people think about dementia, particularly Alzheimer’s disease, memory loss is often the first symptom to come to mind. But people with dementia often present with other symptoms depending on which area of the brain is affected.

People who have dementia may also:

  • Become confused about where they are
  • Encounter issues with driving
  • Have problems with making decisions
  • Have trouble taking and refilling their medications
  • Misplace items, such as keys or a purse
  • Struggle to plan and carry out tasks

Dementia is a progressive condition, which means it gets worse over time. This is usually a slow process and new symptoms may emerge over the span of months or years. When diagnosing dementia, we look for abnormalities in more than one area. 

Myth 3: Medications can’t help symptoms

While there is no cure, medications may temporarily help symptoms. 

We tell our patients and their caregivers that there are medications that have been developed for patients with dementia. When we decide to start one of these medications, we also plan to see how the patient responds to the medication to decide if the medication should be continued. If the patient experiences side effects, we discuss reducing the dose and sometimes stopping these medicines if they aren't effective.   

I look forward to the day when we can prevent dementia, instead of treating it after the fact. While there is no miracle drug yet, many investigators are working on finding one. 

Tips to help prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s

While we work toward a vaccine to prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s, there are some things you can do to keep your brain healthy and prevent future damage.

There are three main elements that are thought to help prevent cognitive decline:

  • Social interaction
  • Education
  • Physical exercise

We don’t know to what degree each of these things prevent dementia, but studies show a correlation between them and dementia.

Many people don’t realize that heart health and brain health are intertwined. So, doing things for your cardiovascular health, such as controlling your blood pressure, reduces your stroke risk and preserves brain function and memory. 

Related reading: Ballroom to boogie: How dancing can improve seniors’ brain health

You also can protect you brain with a few precautions. Wear a helmet while riding your bike or motorcycle. Fasten your seat belt. Avoid activities or sports that have a lot of physical contact and risk of repeated head trauma.

A dementia diagnosis may be very worrisome, but it is clear from several studies that educating patients and their families about dementia is a very important part of successfully managing patients with dementia. It is very important to know you’re not alone. There are many community resources that may improve your and your loved one's quality of life. 

Understanding how this disease may affect people and managing unpredictable or challenging behaviors are part and parcel of the best treatment plans. Managing unpredictable behaviors are key to caring for your loved ones. Planning ahead and making decisions about health care, financial care and lifestyle concerns early are crucial. As a team, we work to provide compassionate and excellent care to you and your loved one.

If you or a loved one wish to be evaluated for dementia, call 214-645-8650 or request an appointment online.

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