1. “Memory loss is a normal part of aging.” Part of this misconception comes from the fact that memory loss is so common. However, being common does not make it normal. It sometimes takes longer to recall things as we get older. I often liken this to physical abilities — for example, running — which we are often not as good at, or not as fast at as when we were younger. But we can still eventually get there, or remember what it is that momentarily eluded us. How much memory decline occurs as a part of normal aging is not entirely clear. But it is when someone begins to forget more basic, long-standing information, or when their ability to think and reason is impaired, that there is a problem.
2. “Alzheimer’s disease only affects old people.” While the greatest risk factor for AD is age, and thus the longer you live the more likely you are to get it, there are still individuals who develop AD at younger ages. While it is more common to develop AD after the age of 65, there are still people who develop the disease in their early 60’s and 50’s — and although rare, there are even some with a very rare, distinct form who develop AD in their 40’s and 30’s. The group under the age of 65 accounts for 5-10% of all patients with AD.
3. “People don’t die from Alzheimer’s disease.” In fact, AD is a fatal disease and is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. It is perhaps not as obvious as other fatal diseases such as heart disease or stroke, because it is chronic, insidious and progressive. In addition, the immediate cause of death is sometimes something caused by AD, such as infection, which people sometimes don’t realize was ultimately due to having AD.
4. “There are no treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, so why bother getting a diagnosis?” While there are no cures for AD, there are treatments available, which may provide some symptomatic benefit.
5. “Dementia is the same as Alzheimer’s disease.” AD is just one cause of dementia, of which there are many. “Dementia” describes the symptoms and signs you can see. It is a when someone has lost their ability to function due to cognitive impairment. While AD is the most common cause of dementia accounting for 60-70% of cases, there are in fact over 100 causes of dementia. Some examples include dementia due to multiple strokes (vascular dementia), Lewy Body dementia, dementia related to Parkinson’s disease, and dementia due to head injury.
6. “You can get Alzheimer’s disease from the aluminum in soda cans and cooking pots.” There was some evidence from animal studies in the 1970’s, which suggested that aluminum exposure could cause AD. However, subsequent studies to investigate this further did not show this to be the case and it is generally not considered to be true by the scientific community.
Dr. Rachel Schindler is a neurologist with subspecialty training in Neuropsychiatry and Behavioral Neurology. After completing her training, she was Director of Behavioral Neurology and Neuropsychiatry, Chief of Neurorehabilitation, and Assistant Professor of Neurology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. There, she founded and directed The Neurobehavior and Memory Disorders Program, a comprehensive multidisciplinary program serving patients and their families with neurobehavioral and memory disorders related to Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, head injury, stroke, epilepsy, and other neurological disorders. In 2000, she joined Pfizer, where she is currently Vice President, Clinical Disease Area Expert in Alzheimer’s disease. In addition to her leadership role in development of medications and setting strategy for AD, she has been involved in various U.S. and global initiatives and consensus groups to advance research, public policy, and the care of Alzheimer’s patients. Currently, she is the Co-Chair of the Alzheimer’s Association Research Roundtable and Chair of the Medical and Scientific Advisory Board of the Long Island Alzheimer’s Foundation.