6 Myths About Dementia

Myths and misconceptions abound when it comes to medical matters. One area in which myths particularly are prevalent is in regard to dementia. Through this article, we dispel six of the most common myths circulating among the public today about dementia.

The six most commonplace myths we work to bust in this article are:

  • Dementia is a disease
  • Memory loss is always the first sign of dementia
  • Dementia is a natural part of aging
  • Dementia is always genetic
  • Dementia causes the loss of all memories
  • Dementia-like symptoms are never reversible

Myth #1: Dementia Is a Disease

Many people understandably refer to dementia as a disease. In point of fact, dementia is not a disease. Dementia really is what fairly can be described as an umbrella term. In encompasses what are identified as diseases and other medical and psychological conditions.

Dementia is a general medical and colloquial term used to describe thinking and memory skills that have deteriorated to the point that a person begins to experience problems with daily activities, according 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. A number of different medical conditions can result in a person being afflicted with dementia that include:

  • Alzheimer’s disease is the most common
  • Vascular dementia due to strokes
  • Primary progressive aphasia
  • Frontotemporal dementia
  • Lewy body dementia

Myth #2: Memory Loss Is Always the First Sign of Dementia

Memory loss oftentimes is the first sign of Alzheimer’s disease, but not always, according to physicians at Harvard Medical School and elsewhere. In fact, a compelling 2021 study revealed 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disease often shows up as word finding difficulty, trouble seeing clearly (not explained by eye issues such as outdated corrective lenses), or trouble balancing your checkbook.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 as well and may not be memory loss. For example, primary progressive aphasia starts with language problems. Dementia with Lewy bodies can start with visual hallucinations of little people or animals.

Myth #3: Dementia Is a Natural Part of Aging

The most pervasive myth about dementia is that it just happens to most people eventually – that it is a normal part of the natural aging process. This definitely is a misconception about dementia, widespread though it may be. 

Dementia is not part of normal aging. Dementia is simply more commonplace as people get older. The same holds true for other medical conditions like heart disease, stroke, and cancer.

Research published in 2022, from scientists who studied the U.S. adult population, found that approximate 41 percent of dementia risk might be preventable. In this study, the most important ways to reduce your risk of dementia were:

  • Treat your blood pressure
  • Control your weight
  • Engage in regular physical activity.

Myth #4: Dementia Is Always Genetic

Dementia may have a genetic connection in some instances. However, research demonstrates that dementia is not always genetic.

There likely is a genetic connection to dementia about 50 percent the time. With that said, researchers and others who work in the field of dementia note that there is yet to be established truly solid evidence about the genetic connection.

What scientists do know is that some people in South America carry rare genes that almost guarantee a 100 percent likelihood of developing early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. This would occur between the ages 35 and 65.

For the rest of us, having a family history of dementia makes getting it two to four times more likely. There is a common genetic variant that about 25 percent 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.

Having said all of this, bear in mind that genetics are not always destiny. Studies demonstrate that engaging in good lifestyle behaviors can reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, even if you have an e4 allele or gene factor. Two important lifestyle matters that lower the risk of developing dementia are:

  • Eating a Mediterranean diet
  • Doing aerobic exercise that strengthens your heart and lungs

Myth #5: Dementia Causes the Loss of All Memories

A considerable number of people believe that dementia results in the loss of all memories. That is not always the case. 

Alzheimer’s disease does cause the loss of memories, but in most instances not all of them. That tends to be the case in regard to an individual diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, at least 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 by an individual with Alzheimer’s disease. This is because the hippocampus, one part of the brain that is damaged in Alzheimer’s, oversees recent memories but not older memories.

Research demonstrates that other types of dementia might not cause memory loss at all. (This is a fact that understandably is surprising to many people.)

Myth #6: Dementia-Like Symptoms Are Never Reversible

Memory loss and other problems associated with thinking are not always the result of Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia. Sometimes memory loss and related problems have another underlying cause. These can include:

  • Depression
  • Another psychiatric disorder
  • Medication side effects
  • Alcohol use
  • Cannabis use
  • Substance use disorder
  • Thyroid disease
  • Another medical disorder
  • Vitamin deficiency

In many cases, treating the underlying condition has the ultimate effect of reversing the dementia-like symptoms. Therefore, if you or a loved one are having problems with thinking and memory, see your doctor to find out if the issues can be treated and even eliminated. A physician has resources that can aid in determining the underlying cause of memory loss and thinking issues. By obtaining this information in a proactive manner, if dementia-like symptoms are reversible, there is a better chance that such a course of effective treatment can occur.