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A Mystery of the Mind

by Eddie Rayner

All too often, myths and misconceptions about Alzheimer’s disease stand in the way of understanding it and helping those affected. Here, we sit down with Dr Rajarathinam Ayyanar, a neurologist at Zulekha Hospital in Dubai, to look at several of those myths and discover the truth about some of the more common beliefs surrounding it.

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

Truth: Familial Alzheimer’s disease accounts for less than 5% of all cases; there is a very low chance you will get Alzheimer’s disease simply because your mother or father did.

Myth: You only get Alzheimer’s disease when you are elderly.

Truth: A progressive, degenerative disease of the brain, it most often occurs in people over 65. However, it can also affect people in their 40s and 50s.

Myth: Memory loss means Alzheimer’s disease.

Truth: Not necessarily so. Nevertheless, if memory loss affects a person’s day-to-day ability to function, or is accompanied by a decrease in judgment or reasoning ability, it’s best to see a doctor immediately.

Myth: Alzheimer’s disease doesn’t lead to death.

Truth: Unfortunately, in the U.S., it’s the sixth leading cause of death, with most people living 8 to 10 years after they’re diagnosed.

Myth: Some treatments stop the disease from getting worse.

Truth: While specific treatments can help against Alzheimer’s symptoms, there’s no current way to stop the disease itself.

Myth: It is no use going to see the doctor because Alzheimer’s disease is untreatable.

Truth: Wrong again! Going to see a doctor is hugely beneficial, especially if you want an early diagnosis and want the medication to be most effective. It is important to understand that Alzheimer’s drugs work best in the initial stages and slow down the progression.

Myth: Aluminium causes Alzheimer’s disease.

Truth: For years, aluminium has been suspected as potentially playing a role in the development of Alzheimer’s disease, but conclusive evidence has been difficult to find.

Myth: Alzheimer’s disease is caused by flu shots, silver fillings, or aspartame.

Truth: Experts don’t actually know what causes the disease, so nothing can be ruled out, but there is no scientific evidence for any of the above. It could well be a mix of factors tied to genes, environment, and lifestyle. Certain research suggests it might be related to health conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes, but like aluminium and other ‘suspects’, there is no hard evidence to back this up.

Scientists are becoming more interested in the possible role of lifestyle factors, including a healthy diet, exercise, being social (not on a computer!), and doing things that challenge your mind – all of these might lower the risk.

Myth: There is no meaning to life once diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

Truth: There is always meaning to life. Alzheimer’s patients, although with a disease, can continue to have great meaning in their lives. What’s more, there is hope. The battle with Alzheimer’s disease is being engaged in leading medical institutions and universities throughout the world – it is a physical disease, not a mythic curse; therefore it will ultimately fall to a physical cure.

Dr Rajarathinam Ayyanar is a neurologist at Zulekha Hospital in Dubai. He worked as Associate Professor of Neurology for four years in India, had a stint in National Institute of Neurology and Neurosurgery in London, UK, and Cleveland Clinic Hospital in Ohio, USA.