MYTH: Dementia is a disease
FACT: Dementia is not a disease. Instead, it describes a group of symptoms that affects the ability to think, remember things, and reason to a degree such that a person’s activities of daily living are impaired. Other changes can include trouble with language or communication, and unexpected changes in mood and behavior.
MYTH: All types of dementia are the same
FACT: There are many different types of dementia—though some are more common than others. Some of the more common types of dementia include:
- Alzheimer’s dementia (AD): This is the most common and most well-known cause of dementia. It is a progressive disease that slowly changes the chemistry and structure of the brain, leading to the death of brain cells. Becoming confused and forgetful and experiencing mood swings are common with AD.
- Parkinson’s dementia: Though Parkinson’s disease first affects the region of the brain that is key to movement, it eventually spreads and can begin to affect mental abilities. Parkinson’s dementia affects memory, attention-span and judgment, and can look a lot like AD.
- Vascular dementia: This type of dementia occurs when the oxygen supply to the brain is cut off due to a stroke or a series of mini-strokes. It is a common form of dementia and can cause problems with speed of thinking, concentrating and ability to complete tasks.
- Lewy Body dementia: This type of dementia gets its name from protein aggregates that develop inside the nerve cell and cause damage to tissues. With Lewy body dementia, attention and alertness problems are common, as are hallucinations.
- Frontotemporal dementia: This dementia is caused by damage to the front part of the brain. It can affect personality and lead to behavioral changes and eventually memory problems.
MYTH: Losing your memory and getting confused is a natural part of aging
FACT: Dementia is common in the aging population. But it is not a normal or natural part of aging. In other words, something that is common is not the same as something that naturally happens due to aging. It may be true that as we get older we may get less physically and mentally agile, which is why it is important to stay active. It’s important to choose foods and activities that are both heart healthy and brain healthy. Speak with your doctor to better understand if you may have dementia, what type it may be, and how it can be addressed.
MYTH: Dementia is usually diagnosed shortly after the onset of Alzheimer’s disease
FACT: Dementia-causing disease can be present as much as 20 years before symptoms of dementia begin to occur. The first signs of disease are often very mild forms of cognitive (learning or memory) impairment and may be too subtle to cause concern.
MYTH: You can tell that someone has dementia because they are unable to communicate and usually live in an assisted living facility or nursing home
FACT: The progression of dementia due to Alzheimer’s is gradual, so many people with dementia may be out in the world, some living independently with moderate help, and managing their lives.
Rachel Schindler, MD was previously a physician/scientist who lead the strategy for Neuroscience in the Clinical Sciences group at Pfizer’s Global Innovative Pharmaceuticals Medicines Development Group. She is the founder and former Director of the Neurobehavior and Memory Disorders Center at University Hospital at Stony Brook.