Dispelling Myths about Alzheimer’s

Myth: Memory loss is a natural part of aging.

Reality: In the past people believed memory loss was a normal part of aging, often regarding even Alzheimer’s as natural age-related decline. Experts now recognize severe memory loss as a symptom of serious illness. Whether memory naturally declines to some extent remains an open question. Many people feel that their memory becomes less sharp as they grow older, but determining whether there is any scientific basis for this belief is a research challenge still being addressed.

Myth: Alzheimer’s disease is hereditary.

Reality: Rare cases of the disease — called early-onset Alzheimer’s — affects people in their 30s, 40s and 50s. This form of the disease has been linked to three different genes and has been observed in only 120 families worldwide. Individuals who carry one of the early-onset genes will most likely develop Alzheimer’s. The more common late-onset Alzheimer’s disease usually affects people over the age 65. The greatest risk factor for developing late-onset Alzheimer’s is increasing age. A person also has a greater risk if he or she has an immediate parent or sibling with the disease. Researchers have found one gene that is associated with an increased risk of late-onset Alzheimer’s.

Myth: Alzheimer’s disease is not fatal.

Reality: Alzheimer’s is a fatal disease. It begins with the destruction of cells in regions of the brain that are important for memory. However, the eventual loss of cells in other regions of the brain leads to the failure of other essential systems in the body. Also, because many people with Alzheimer’s have other illnesses common in older age, the actual cause of death may be no single factor

Myth: Head injury can lead to Alzheimer’s disease.

Reality: Several studies have found that Alzheimer’s disease is more common among individuals who have sustained a severe head injury (accompanied by loss of consciousness) during the course of their lives. Additional research is needed, however, to understand what happens to the brain in such injuries and how those changes in the brain are related to Alzheimer’s disease.

Myth: Drinking out of aluminum cans or cooking in aluminum pots and pans can lead to Alzheimer’s disease.

Reality: Based on current research, getting rid of aluminum cans, pots, and pans will not protect you from Alzheimer’s disease. The exact role (if any) of aluminum in Alzheimer’s disease is still being researched and debated. However, most researchers believe that not enough evidence exists to consider aluminum a risk factor for Alzheimer’s or a cause of dementia.

Myth: Aspartame causes memory loss.

Reality: Aspartame’s role in memory loss is a health concern that has been associated with artificial sweeteners. Several studies have been conducted on aspartame’s effect on cognitive function in both animals and humans. These studies found no scientific evidence of a link between aspartame and memory loss. Aspartame was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1996 for use in all foods and beverages. The sweetener, marketed as Nutrasweet® and Equal®, is made by joining two protein components, aspartic acid and phenylalanine, with 10 percent methanol. Methanol is widely found in fruits, vegetables, and other plant foods.

Myth: There are therapies available to stop the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

Reality: At this time, there is no medical treatment to cure or stop the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Four FDA-approved drugs — tacrine (Cognex®), donepezil (Aricept®), rivastigmine (Exelon®), and galantamine (Reminyl®) — may temporarily improve or stabilize memory and thinking skills in some individuals.