World Alzheimer’s Day: 5 misconceptions about dementia

You’re forgetful, you can’t recall faces or names and you rely on loved ones for your daily needs. While you’ve heard about Alzheimer’s and dementia, how accurate is the information you know about the disease?

“There are all kinds of myths and misinformation about dementia that contribute to stigma and this makes people with Alzheimer’s more inclined to stay in their houses and become depressed,” Mary Schulz, director of education at the Alzheimer Society of Canada, told Global News.

“We should learn about the disease and understand it. It’s important to learn the facts,” Schulz said.

READ MORE: 10 warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease

About 25,000 new cases of dementia are diagnosed each year, according to the Alzheimer Society. It estimates that 564,000 Canadians have dementia right now.

By 2031, in just 15 years, it’s warning that 937,000 Canadians will have dementia.

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As the world marks Alzheimer’s Day on Wednesday, Global News looks at five common misconceptions about the disease.

Misconception: A diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia means my life is over

The reality: Schulz said one of the most “disturbing and damaging” myths about dementia is that those who are handed the diagnosis are now “rendered useless.”

Canadians often think that someone living with dementia can no longer work, volunteer, drive, or even cook. That’s not the case, Schulz said, but these kinds of limitations adds to the stigma of the disease.

READ MORE: What are the early warning signs and symptoms of dementia?

“People with dementia tell us all of the time that their friends stop calling, they can’t continue in book club, or people worry that you need to leave the choir in case you can’t remember songs,” Schulz said.

“That may be true but it may very well not be true. Typically, it isn’t true right away either – this is a progressive disease and changes happen over time,” Schulz said.

Dementia is a chronic disease and people continue to have meaningful, productive lives. They get support, in which they’re taught tips and tricks to stay self-sufficient.

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Misconception: Dementia is a disease of the elderly

The reality: Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive, degenerative disease of the brain. It’s true that it often occurs in people when they’re over 65, but some people are diagnosed with the early onset of dementia in their 40s and 50s, too.

“Age is still the greatest risk factor for developing dementia. The older you get, the higher the likelihood you’ll develop dementia but people with dementia are now getting diagnosed earlier,” Schulz warned.

READ MORE: Watch for these behavioural changes as early warning signs of dementia

It’s not an “avalanche” but patients are getting diagnosed younger and younger. It could be because of awareness – more people are paying attention to early warning signs that something is wrong and seeking help from their doctors.

The risk of dementia doubles every five years after 65.

WATCH ABOVE: Global National anchor, Dawna Friesen opens up about her family and its battle with dementia in a special presentation for 16×9.

Misconception: There’s nothing I can do to prevent or stave off dementia

The reality: Your brain may change with age but don’t think mental decline has to seep in as you get older. Research suggests there are plenty of ways to keep your brain sharp and alert through tweaks in your daily lifestyle and diet.

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“The evidence is getting stronger that there are things we can do to potentially lower our risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia,” Schulz told Global.

READ MORE: 5 ways to keep your brain young and healthy

Before the scientific community studied this, people often thought dementia was luck of the draw and felt a “real sense of helplessness and lack of control.”

“There are no guarantees that if you follow these [lifestyle habits] to a letter that you won’t develop a form of dementia but we’re learning that they have some protective measures,” she said.

Challenge yourself by learning a new language, take up chess or take piano lessons to stimulate your brain. Be socially active with friends or family by spending time with your grandkids or joining a book club. And make sure you’re following a healthy diet with lots of colourful fruits and vegetables, and carve out time for exercise.

Misconception: Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are all about memory loss

The reality: Alzheimer’s disease is not just about forgetting where you put your car keys. Everyone encounters bouts of memory loss, such as forgetting why they went to a different room in the house or misplacing their belongings. Dementia is deeper than that.

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“If you take that myth that it’s all about memory loss, it leads people to think it’s not so bad and it trivializes the disease. People make inappropriate jokes,” Schulz said.

READ MORE: Why docs say these mood changes are a warning sign for Alzheimer’s

People grappling with Alzheimer’s could forget how to do simple everyday tasks, like taking the cap off their toothpaste before brushing their teeth, or putting on socks before getting into their shoes.

“It can affect your day-to-day ability to function,” she said.

There are other changes families need to pay attention to, too: your loved one could lose interest in friends, family and hobbies, they could be anxious or worried about routine events or outings, or they could have changes in their personality and behaviour, such as becoming agitated, aggressive or irritable.

Misconception: One of my parents had Alzheimer’s disease, so I’m going to get it, too

The reality: Familial Alzheimer’s disease makes up less than five per cent of all cases, Schulz said.

“We meet people who think because mom had the disease and their aunt had the disease, they’re a sitting duck,” she said. There are some forms of the disease that have a much stronger genetic and familial link, but most people don’t encounter that form of dementia.

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READ MORE: Inside the world of dementia, as a painful reality sets in

The risk is only “slightly increased.”

“It doesn’t mean you’re going to get the disease,” Shulz concluded.

What are the symptoms and warning signs of dementia?

As many as 50 per cent of Canadians with dementia are not diagnosed early enough, losing valuable time when intervention can help these people with managing their daily lives.

The Alzheimer Society documents a list of 10 signs to watch for:

  • Memory loss affecting day-to-day abilities – forgetting things often or struggling to retain new information.
  • Difficulty performing familiar tasks – forgetting how to do something you’ve been doing your whole life, such as preparing a meal or getting dressed.
  • Problems with language – forgetting words or substituting words that don’t fit the context.
  • Disorientation in time and space – not knowing what day of the week it is or getting lost in a familiar place.
  • Impaired judgment – not recognizing a medical problem that needs attention or wearing light clothing on a cold day.
  • Problems with abstract thinking – not understanding what numbers signify on a calculator, for example, or how they’re used.
  • Misplacing things – putting things in strange places, like an iron in the freezer or a wristwatch in the sugar bowl.
  • Changes in mood and behaviour– exhibiting severe mood swings from being easy-going to quick-tempered.
  • Changes in personality – behaving out of character such as feeling paranoid or threatened.
  • Loss of initiative – losing interest in friends, family and favourite activities.