Is Alzheimer’s a normal part of aging?
If you are someone who is prone to being swayed by public opinion (as opposed to science) you would answer this question incorrectly–with a “Yes”–along with 59 percent of the people interviewed in a recent multi-national survey conducted by the Alzheimer’s Association.
More than 6,300 adults from 12 countries (Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Denmark, Germany, Japan, India, Mexico, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom) participated in the survey, which revealed a number of astounding misconceptions about Alzheimer’s disease:
Myth: Alzheimer’s is a normal part of aging. People from China, India and Saudi Arabia were most likely to adhere to this false belief, while the citizens of Mexico and the United Kingdom were least likely to be fooled.
Fact: There’s nothing “normal” about Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s disease is just one form of dementia, defined as the impairment of normal brain functioning marked by memory loss, impulse control issues, judgement errors and problems performing activities of daily living (i.e. dressing, eating, grooming, etc.). Anywhere from 60 to 80 percent of people with dementia have Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. But there are many other types of dementia as well including Lewy Body disease, Pick’s disease, vascular dementia and Parkinson’s dementia, among others. Dementia symptoms can even be caused by reversible conditions such as a urinary tract infection, or an adverse reaction to a medication.
Myth: Alzheimer’s isn’t fatal. Forty percent of respondents mistakenly think that the disease, which is marked by progressive cognitive decline that gradually robs an individual of their ability to perform even basic tasks such as eating and going to the bathroom, isn’t fatal. Over 50 percent of the Mexicans, Germans and Brazilians who were interviewed were unaware of the fatal implications of the disease. Another shocking twist–adults between the ages of 18 and 60 years old were far more likely to know that Alzheimer’s kills than those in older age brackets.
Fact: Alzheimer’s is fatal. The cognitive deterioration caused by Alzheimer’s is ultimately fatal, though there has traditionally been a great deal of confusion when it comes to the formal cause of death for people with the disease. Death certificates don’t often list Alzheimer’s as the cause of death, even when the disease is the driving force behind an individual’s passing. For instance, Alzheimer’s often results in eating issues that increase a patients’ risk of inhaling (aspirating) bits of food into their lungs, causing them to contract pneumonia. If that person passes away, their cause of death will likely be listed as “pneumonia” rather than “Alzheimer’s.” In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 84,000 older Americans died from Alzheimer’s disease. But a recent analysis led by researchers from the Rush University Medical Center concluded that Alzheimer’s was the primary cause of death in approximately six times that number.
Myth: Alzheimer’s is caused by genes. Just over one-third of those surveyed (37 percent) believe that Alzheimer’s must run in the family for a person to be at risk for the disease.
Fact: Alzheimer’s has a genetic component. The cause of Alzheimer’s remains elusive to science, but certain contributing factors have been found to play a role in the development of the disease. Both early-onset (occurring in people age 30 to 60) and late-onset Alzheimer’s can be influenced by genetics. When it comes to early-onset Alzheimer’s, genetics do appear to play a role, with certain single-gene mutations on chromosomes 1, 14 and 21 exerting an especially strong influence on the brain’s ability to process particular proteins. The genetic component of late-onset Alzheimer’s, on the other hand, involves a completely different gene, known as the apolipoprotein E (APOE) gene. Individuals who carry the APOE4 allele appear to have an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease later on in life.
Beyond the statistics
While it’s certainly important to be aware of the facts and figures of Alzheimer’s, such information has a limited impact on the millions of families affected by the disease, right now. Science is still too far away to present a cure or actionable prevention strategy in the near future.
What can we do to help the men and women facing the stark reality of an unknown future with Alzheimer’s?
While donations to organizations that push for and engage in Alzheimer’s research are a good place to start, there’s a non-monetary type of aid that each and every person is capable of giving to the people in their lives who are battling Alzheimer’s disease: understanding.
Gaining an understanding of the true impact of Alzheimer’s means going beyond the textbook definitions and the eye-catching statistics; into the hearts, minds and lives of those living with the disease. This is the only way to truly dispel the stigma that surrounds those with dementia. “The hardest thing with this disease is having people around me–friends and family, everybody like that–and trying to explain to them every day what I go through,” says Rick Phelps, who was diagnosed with Early-Onset Alzheimer’s in 2011, at age 57. Rick’s condition has progressed so far that some days his brain can’t properly process what his eyes are seeing. For example, he will be searching for where he put the remote control, even if the device is lying on the table right in front of him.
Rick’s experiences with Alzheimer’s led him seek answers and support from others in similar situations, but he found that very few people with the disease felt comfortable enough to talk about it. He decided to become an advocate for spreading awareness of the disease to lawmakers and laymen alike, in the hopes of inspiring others to do the same. He’s also taken to the blogosphere and social media to openly share his experiences with Alzheimer’s to help people gain a better understanding of what life is like with the disease.
Along with his wife, Phyllis June, Rick recently participated in the creation of in the ground-breaking multimedia story “Fade to Blank: Life Inside Alzheimer’s” an online experience that challenges the way society views people with the disease. “I have done countless interviews in the last few years. None of them was done better than this one,” Rick says. “It was indeed one of the best articles I have been involved in.”
To read the Phelps’ story, as well as the stories of two other families affected by Alzheimer’s, visit Fade to Blank: Life Inside Alzheimer’s, and discover how the human spirit endures in spite of this terrifying disease.
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