Dispelling myths about Alzheimer’s disease

Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash

It’s no surprise to me that developing Alzheimer’s disease is something that people might fear. Nor is it a surprise that they might go to the internet to look for information or reassurance. While I support and encourage taking an active interest in your health, a few words of caution: don’t believe everything you read on the internet. Not all the information you find there is accurate. Or helpful. In this article, I tackle some of the common myths about Alzheimer’s disease you will find if you ask Dr Google.

Alzheimer’s is caused by aluminium/silver fillings/aspartame/flu vaccines.

The truth is that we don’t really know what causes Alzheimer’s disease, although it definitely isn’t any of the above. We are only just beginning to understand the role of metabolic or hormonal disturbances, such as those seen in Type 2 diabetes. And the effect high levels of the stress hormone cortisol has on the development of Alzheimer’s. A lot of research now focuses on these factors, which hadn’t been considered up until quite recently.

Alzheimer’s symptoms are a normal part of ageing.

Everyone has moments of forgetfulness. You momentarily can’t find your car keys, or you walk into a room and forget what you came in for. A certain amount of what doctors call ‘cognitive decline’ with age is normal. Generally, it doesn’t have a significant impact on your life. In patients with Alzheimer’s, the memory loss quickly affects how they go about their daily activities. They may suddenly not know how to get home from work, or dress for summer when it’s winter outside, or stop a conversation mid-sentence because they forgot what to say next. These symptoms aren’t a part of the normal ageing process and should be investigated further.

If my parent has Alzheimer’s disease, I’m going to get it too.

While it is true that Alzheimer’s disease can be inherited, it is quite rare (less than 5% of cases). An inherited form of Alzheimer’s disease may be likely if the disease develops at a younger age (before 50). And if there are more than one or two cases of Alzheimer’s in your extended family, including aunties/uncles, cousins and grandparents. In the majority of cases, having a parent with Alzheimer’s disease does not automatically mean that you will also develop the disease.

Alzheimer’s disease can only be diagnosed at autopsy.

This used to be true, before the development of sophisticated brain imaging technology. Today, diagnosing Alzheimer’s can be done with a very high degree of accuracy. This is done using a combination of patient history, laboratory tests and diagnostic imaging (e.g. MRI, PET scan), and neuropsychological testing. A ‘Holy Grail’ of Alzheimer’s research is to find a biomarker. That is something that can be measured easily in blood, like cholesterol or glucose, which can identify who is likely to develop Alzheimer’s before the symptoms appear.

Where to find out more…

If you are looking for information about Alzheimer’s disease from the comfort of home, choose your sources. A good place to start are the patient support organisations like Dementia Australia (https://www.dementia.org.au/). However, if any of this information has raised concerns about your health, or the health of a loved one, you will get more accurate and useful information by speaking to your real doctor, not the one in your computer.

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