Dementia is so widely discussed that you might feel you know a bit about it. But there are many misconceptions about the condition, and believing them could potentially affect your health. For the real story on six common myths about dementia, we turned to Dr. Andrew Budson, chief of Cognitive and Behavioral Neurology at the Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System, lecturer in neurology at Harvard Medical School, and the co-author or editor of eight books about memory loss.
Myth #1: Dementia is a disease
Dr. Budson: Dementia is not a disease. It's a general term to describe thinking and memory skills that have deteriorated to the point that you experience problems with daily activities. A number of conditions can cause dementia; Alzheimer's disease is the most common. Other types of dementia include vascular dementia due to strokes, primary progressive aphasia, frontotemporal dementia, and Lewy body dementia.
Myth #2: Memory loss is the first sign of dementia
Dr. Budson: Memory loss is generally the first sign of Alzheimer's disease, but not always. A 2021 study found that Alzheimer's disease often shows up as word finding difficulty, trouble seeing clearly — not explained by eye issues such as outdated corrective lenses — or trouble balancing your checkbook. Initial symptoms of other types of dementia can vary. For example, primary progressive aphasia starts with language problems, and dementia with Lewy bodies can start with visual hallucinations of little people or animals.
Myth #3: Dementia is a natural part of aging
Dr. Budson: Dementia is not part of normal aging. It is simply more common as people get older — just like heart disease, stroke, and cancer. Research published in 2022, from scientists who studied the U.S. adult population, found that about 41% of dementia risk might be preventable. In this study, the most important ways to reduce your risk of dementia were to treat your blood pressure, control your weight, and engage in regular physical activity.
Myth #4: Dementia is always genetic
Dr. Budson: Dementia is not always genetic. We think that dementia is probably genetic about half the time. But we don't have solid evidence about it. We do know that some people in South America carry rare genes that almost guarantee a 100% likelihood of developing young-onset Alzheimer's disease between ages 35 and 65. For the rest of us, having a family history of dementia makes getting it two to four times more likely. And there is a common genetic variant that about 25% of the population has called the ApoEe4 allele, "e4 allele" for short. If you have that gene, your risk of developing Alzheimer's is about four times greater. But genetics are not always destiny. Studies have shown that by engaging in good lifestyle behaviors — such as eating a Mediterranean diet and doing aerobic exercise that strengthens your heart and lungs — you can reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer's disease, even if you have an e4 allele.
Myth #5: Dementia causes the loss of all memories
Dr. Budson: Alzheimer's disease does cause the loss of memories, but generally not all memories, at least not until the end of life. People with Alzheimer's begin having trouble remembering what happened recently, in the prior hours, days, weeks, or months. Things that happened years ago, from childhood through age 35 or so, are generally remembered. This is because the hippocampus, one part of the brain that is damaged in Alzheimer's, oversees recent memories and not older memories. Other types of dementia might not cause memory loss at all.
Myth #6: Dementia-like symptoms are never reversible
Dr. Budson: Memory loss and other problems with thinking aren't always caused by Alzheimer's or another type of dementia. Sometimes there's another cause, such as depression or another psychiatric disorder, medication side effects, alcohol or cannabis use, thyroid disease or another medical disorder, or vitamin deficiency. In many cases, treating the condition may reverse the dementia-like symptoms. So, if you're having problems with thinking and memory, see your doctor to find out if the issues can be treated and even eliminated.
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