Puzzling Out 10 Alzheimer's Myths

Appropriately for a complex disease, much of what you might hear about Alzheimer's isn't completely true -- or completely false. So we spoke to a number of top experts in Alzheimer's research to explore some nuances of the myths surrounding this condition.

Fact or Myth? Alzheimer's only afflicts the elderly.

Answer: Myth

Alzheimer's disease is certainly more common in elderly people, but it can occur sooner in life.

"There are people in their 40s, 50s and 60s who have what we call early onset," said Whitehouse.

In those earlier cases, he said, family history is a strong predictor.

"When it's under 65, you are more likely to have a strong genetic history," said Whitehouse.

Karlawish agreed, noting that while Alzheimer's most commonly affects people over the age of 65, people significantly younger can get the disease.

He said that the youngest person he has treated was 52 at the onset, but patients like that "[are] not, by any means, the most common group. That's very uncommon."

And so, Whitehouse said, while Alzheimer's may affect some middle-aged patients, it is typically a problem that plagues older people.

"The young-age-of-onset cases do not, in my opinion, take away from the general claim that Alzheimer's is, more commonly, a part of aging," he said.

Fact or Myth? Memory loss is an inevitable part of aging.

Answer: Fact

"Memory loss, as a symptom, happens pretty much to everybody as they age," said Dr. Constantine Lyketsos, director of the Neuropsychiatry Service at Johns Hopkins Medical Institution.

He noted that younger people will almost always perform better on memory tests in a lab than their older counterparts.

"Your memory is definitely less good when you're older," said Lyketsos.

But he noted that while memory loss may occur, that does not mean Alzheimer's will follow.

"There clearly are people who can live to a ripe old age -- 90s, 100s -- without dementia," said Lyketsos.

Dr. Gary Small, director of the UCLA Center on Aging, reiterated that sentiment.

"The brain tends to age like other organs, but it's generally not incapacitated and usually mild," he said.

However, he noted, "the average person notices a delay in retrieval of information."

Fact or Myth? Exercise can help you preserve your memory longer.

Answer: Probably a fact

This one is likely true.

A number of large studies have shown that regular exercise seems to show benefits in preventing cognitive decline in the elderly adults who are at risk.

"I'm pretty adamant about people getting good cardiovascular conditioning to protect their brain," said Small.

But while it seems clear that exercise shows some benefits in limiting people's cognitive decline, physicians remain unsure of how, exactly, that happens.

"It's probably increased circulation," said Small, noting that the circulation brings nutrients such as oxygen and glucose to the brain.

"You need all kinds of good circulation to bring in the nutrients and take away the excretions," Small said.

Whitehouse noted that even among researchers who study diseases in mice, the benefits of exercise to combat Alzheimer's or any other illness seem clear.

The most effective intervention across the board, he said, is to put an exercise wheel in the cage.

He said that increasing exercise is a recommendation he makes to all of his patients.

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