Why dispelling the myths around dementia is important
The sooner we dispel the myths that surround dementia, the better we’ll be able to respond to the realities of the disease.
You can help dispel harmful myths by:
Age and assumptions
Myth: Dementia is just a part of getting older. So when I grow old, I'll get it too.
Reality: Dementia is not a natural part of aging.
Most people do not develop dementia as they age. While we are not sure what exactly causes dementia, we know that certain risk factors and underlying medical conditions (such as diabetes and stroke) can increase the risk of dementia.
Most of the risk factors for dementia are preventable. Just like any other disease, if we take steps to manage the risks that are preventable, then we can reduce our chances of getting dementia.
Myth: I'm experiencing memory loss. That means I have dementia.
Reality: Memory loss can be a natural part of aging. It doesn't guarantee you have dementia.
People naturally forget things from time to time. If your memory loss is intense enough that it's affecting your day-to-day abilities and diminishing your quality of life, get in touch with your doctor or a qualified healthcare provider as soon as possible.
Memory loss isn't the only sign of dementia. Many forms of dementia do not have memory loss as their first symptom. If you're experiencing any unexplained changes in mood, behaviour or ability, talk to your doctor.
Myth: Dementia only affects older people.
Reality: Dementia can affect people from their 30s onwards.
Dementia is a progressive, degenerative disease of the brain. People over 65 are most likely to get it, but dementia can appear in people under retirement age. When this happens, it's known as young onset dementia.
Myth: People with dementia can't understand what's going on around them.
Reality: Each person's experience with dementia is different. No one should make any assumptions about a person with dementia's level of understanding without engaging with them first.
All people living with dementia have the right to be treated with respect. Yet, as soon as they get diagnosed, people living with dementia experience unjust and unfounded assumptions about their abilities.
A person living in the early stages of dementia only has mild impairment due to symptoms. They can take care of themselves, make decisions for themselves and often do not need assistance. If you think they need help, it's respectful to ask first rather than assume.
While a person living in the later stages of dementia may not always be able to communicate with you directly, they can still recognize and understand the sentiments behind your actions and words. It's important to try to reach the person through all the senses, such as by touch or listening to music.
What causes dementia
Myth: Because someone in my family has dementia, I am definitely going to get it too.
Reality: For most people, family genetics do not cause dementia.
While genetics do play a role in the development of some forms of dementia like young onset Alzheimer's disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the majority of people living with dementia do not have a strong, known genetic link. For example, less than 5% of all people living with Alzheimer’s disease inherited it through a family member.
Myth: Smoking causes dementia.
Reality: Smoking does not cause dementia by itself, but it is one of the major risk factors for dementia.
While not everyone who smokes will get dementia, smoking still invites a lot of risk. According to a report by Alzheimer's Disease International (ADI), people who smoke increase their risk of getting dementia by 45%.
The good news is that smoking is a risk factor you can change, and quitting smoking will reduce the risk of dementia.
Myth: Aluminum causes dementia.
Reality: There's no conclusive evidence that shows aluminum causes dementia.
Current research provides no convincing evidence that exposure to trace elements of aluminum is connected to the development of dementia.
Prevention and treatment
Myth: We have a cure for dementia.
Reality: Right now, there is no cure for the major types of dementia; but that doesn't mean there will never be a cure for these types.
Each major type of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, remains incurable. However, medications, support and care early in the disease can help manage symptoms and improve quality of life.
And because dementia is not a natural part of aging, that means a cure is possible. As you read this, researchers in Canada and around the world are hard at work learning more about dementia.
If we can understand more of this disease, and figure out what exactly causes dementia, then we can work on better treatments and a cure. We're not there yet – but, one day, we will be.
Myth: Dementia can be prevented.
Reality: There is no effective treatment that prevents dementia or stops its progression.
While there are no treatments that can prevent the major forms of dementia or reverse their effects, there are four approved medications that can help manage the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, the most common type of dementia. These medications may be effective in managing symptoms in other dementias, too. Learn more about the medications approved to treat dementia.
There is also a growing amount of evidence that making brain-healthy choices can reduce the risk. These choices include:
- Being physically active
- Being socially active
- Challenging your brain
- Eating healthily
- Making conscious and safe choices
- Managing stress
Myth: Certain vitamins, supplements and memory boosters can prevent and treat dementia.
Reality: While these treatments may help you manage stress and reduce some symptoms, ultimately they will not stop or reverse cognitive decline brought on by dementia.
There have been many studies on alleged dementia treatments, such as coconut oil, herbal remedies and dietary supplements. However, studies linking these substances to effective prevention and treatment of dementia have been inconclusive.
Myth: Marijuana can prevent and treat dementia.
Reality: While there is ongoing promising research on the effects of cannabis, there is currently no evidence that cannabis is useful for the treatment or prevention of dementia.
More research is being done to investigate possible uses of cannabis, including how it may help reduce agitation in people living with dementia.
Living with dementia
Myth: If I’m diagnosed with dementia, it means my life is over.
Reality: You can live with dementia and, at the same time, live meaningfully and actively for many years.
Many people diagnosed with dementia have meaningful, active lives for a number of years. They have a sense of purpose and do not feel their lives are over. How do people live well with dementia?
- Research indicates that making brain-healthy choices can help slow the progression of the disease. Examples of these choices include: Eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, staying socially connected and challenging your brain.
- Earlier diagnosis and medications also help. While medications may not work well for everyone, they are most effective in the early stages of the disease. That's why early diagnosis is important.
- It's also important that people living with dementia can access programs and services that support their quality of life.
- Some people living with dementia put their energy into public speaking and advocacy to raise awareness and reduce stigma against dementia.
Myth: People with dementia become violent and aggressive.
Reality: Violence and aggression are not innate to dementia. If someone living with dementia is acting aggressively, understand what may be causing the behaviour before taking steps to help.
Changes in a person's behaviour can be a sign of damage to the brain caused by dementia. These changes are often due to challenges understanding the world around them and increased difficulty with communication, which makes it hard for the person to express their needs.
Someone living with dementia may respond to something negative, frustrating or confusing in their environment by expressing themselves physically (e.g. biting, hitting, pushing, kicking) or verbally (e.g. shouting, name-calling).
By understanding the person's needs, you can help the person living with dementia work through and reduce responsive behaviours such as aggression. Here are some suggestions and strategies:
- Take steps to make the environment as comfortable and calming as possible. This can avoid many upsetting situations for both the person living with dementia and people nearby.
- If aggressive behaviour happens, look for an immediate cause, such as a noisy television. If you know what's causing the behaviour, take steps to reduce its effects, if not removing it from the environment outright.
- Respond in a supportive manner and reassure in a gentle voice.
- Sometimes, all a person needs is some space and privacy.
- If your safety is threatened, leave.
- Remember – it's the disease, not the person, that is causing this behaviour.