Ten Common Myths About Your Risk of Alzheimer's Disease

Worried senior man at his desk

Ted is worried. He's just turned 70, the age his mom was when she experienced the first signs of Alzheimer's disease. Ted spends a fair amount of time wondering if he will be next!

As we grow older, most of us think from time to time, or more often, about our risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. Many Caring Right at Home readers are providing care for loved ones with dementia, so the subject may be top of mind for them.

There is so much information — and misinformation — out there that we can be overwhelmed as we wonder about our risk, and if there is anything we can do to lower it. Here are 10 common myths about the risk of Alzheimer's disease, and some information to help us dispel those myths as we plan for the future.

Myth #1: If I live to be old enough, I will probably develop Alzheimer's disease.

Fact: Granted, there are more cases of dementia today because people are living longer, and the risk rises with age. However, it is not by any means inevitable as we grow older. When University of Michigan experts polled people in their 50s and early 60s, they found that half of the respondents thought they were likely to develop serious memory and cognitive loss as they aged. Yet in fact, only 20% of older adults will deal with dementia.

Myth #2: If I have a genetic risk for Alzheimer’s disease, that means I will get the disease — there’s nothing I can do about it.

Fact: A higher risk of dementia does run in some families. But at the July 2019 Alzheimer's Association International Conference (AAIC 2019), researchers presented data showing that for the most part, even people with a higher genetic risk of Alzheimer's disease can lower their risk by adopting brain-healthy lifestyle choices. Said the researchers, "Two studies showed that actionable lifestyle changes could potentially counteract elevated risk … participants with a high genetic risk for Alzheimer's following a favorable lifestyle had a 32% lower risk for Alzheimer's and other dementias."

Myth #3: If I have plaques and tangles in my brain, I will soon experience the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.

Fact: Not so long ago, experts might have agreed with this myth. Until the development of today's sophisticated brain imagery, examining the brain upon autopsy was the only way to know if a person had the characteristic amyloid plaques and tangles of tau protein that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease. The catch was, pathologists seldom examined the brain unless the deceased person had the symptoms of Alzheimer's while alive. Today, PET scans and other imaging show that some people have those plaques and tangles in their brains, and yet show no obvious outward signs of the disease. The human brain can be very resilient, forming "backup" connections that work around the affected brain cells. Read on to learn about ways to keep those brain connections strong.

Myth #4: Specifically designed “brain games” are the only way to get the kind of mental exercise that protects against dementia.

Fact: Ever since neurologists began promoting the "your brain: use it or lose it" message, companies have rushed to create computer games, puzzles and other brain training products. These products can be of use, but they don't provide a greater benefit than any other activities that challenge the mind. Reading, learning a language, playing video games, taking an art class, traveling or working at a stimulating job are just a few ways to help our brains build valuable new connections. Experts say learning something new is especially beneficial.

Myth #5: Solitary brain exercise is all I need.

Fact: Challenging our minds with intense mental focus is great. But don't hole up at home alone all day! Loneliness is stressful for the human brain. And many studies have shown that interacting with other people provides an important type of brain stimulation. Most recently, an August 2019 study from University College London, spanning decades in the lives of 10,228 people, consistently found a lower incidence of dementia among those who were socially engaged.

Myth #6: It's OK to skip my exercise routine today, as long as I get some mental exercise.

Fact: Brain stimulation is vital — but exercising our muscles is just as important for brain health. They work together! University of Arizona anthropologists say the brains of our species evolved because of our ancestors' hunting and foraging lifestyle. These activities, explains anthropologist David Raichlen, are "incredibly complex cognitive behavior." His description sounds rather like a modern video game! Says Raichlen, "You're moving on a landscape, you're using memory not only to know where to go but also to navigate your way back, you're paying attention to your surroundings. You're multitasking the entire time because you're making decisions while you're paying attention to the environment, while you are also monitoring your motor systems over complex terrain."

Myth #7: Aerobic exercise is the only type that benefits our brain.

Fact: It's understandable people would think this. A healthy heart promotes a healthy brain, and exercise that raises our heart rate strengthens the heart. But in fact, muscle strengthening activities are also important. Lifting weights, doing squats and knee bends, and working with resistance bands all have been found to give our memories a boost, sometimes even reversing memory loss. Building muscle makes us healthier all around. It also increases several beneficial chemicals in the brain.

Myth #8: Popping supplements every day can protect brain health.

Fact: Alzheimer's Association experts recommend eating a diet that includes lots of fruits, veggies and grains, fish and poultry, and healthy fats such as olive oil. But should we also take supplements? Magazines, TV shows and, of course, the internet are overrun with ads for vitamins, herbs and other "brain-health" substances. The sellers of these supplements claim their products can prevent or even cure memory loss. It's a multibillion-dollar industry — but, say most experts, don't waste your money. The World Health Organization recently noted that no reputable studies confirm the value of these products. Talk to your doctor about a healthy diet instead. (The Alzheimer's Association offers more information about some of these products.)

Myth #9: Drinking alcohol can protect my brain.

Fact: A few years ago, a set of studies associated moderate drinking, particularly red wine, with brain health. Many of us drank a toast to that! However, experts aren't in agreement about the benefits — but they do unanimously agree that drinking too much is very harmful for the brain! Heavy drinking causes brain shrinkage, and a study published in the Lancet Public Health Journal even stated that "alcohol disorders are the most important preventable risk factors for all types of dementia." Talk to your doctor about the amount of alcohol that is safe for you. (And speaking of vices — another AAIC 2019 study showed that smokers are much more likely to experience problems with thinking and memory, and at an earlier age.)

Myth #10: Alzheimer's disease is unrelated to other health conditions.

Fact: Many common diseases and conditions can harm our brains. Diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, depression, stress, sleep problems, sensory disorders of all kinds and even gum disease can raise the risk of Alzheimer's. So think of regular healthcare as a two for one! Everything we do to manage those conditions can also lower our risk of memory loss, even slow the progression if we're already experiencing some changes. Regular medical appointments, taking medications as directed and following our doctor's recommendations all can help us preserve brain health.

The information in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Talk to your doctor about a brain-healthy lifestyle plan that’s right for you.

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.