By Jim Herlihy | Alzheimer’s Association
Despite being the seventh-leading cause of death in the United States and the single largest risk to the health of our Medicare system, Alzheimer’s disease is not widely understood. Even some of the people most clearly at risk will go to great lengths to maintain a distance from the illness.
“Callers to our helpline sometimes won’t even give us their name,” said Jeff Bird, executive director of the Alzheimer’s Association of Colorado, which operates the association’s free multilanguage helpline that is accessible 24/7, 365 days a year to provide information and counsel to individuals who have questions or concerns about their own or a loved one’s mental health.
“For some, acknowledging their concerns about memory loss may be an admission of their worst fears — that they have Alzheimer’s disease,” said Bird. “For that reason, many people don’t want to address the subject. But it’s important for people to realize that there can be other causes of memory loss, making it crucial to get a doctor’s diagnosis.”
Yes, Alzheimer’s deserves its fearsome reputation. It kills more people annually than breast and prostate cancers combined. More than 6.7 million people in the United States, including 76,000 Coloradans, are living with the disease, which currently has no prevention or cure. And caring for people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias is currently taking one of every five Medicare dollars — a total expected to rise to $1 of $3 by 2050 if a cure is not found.
The Alzheimer’s Association is the largest nongovernmental source of funding for research to find a cure for the disease. That research is ongoing.
Until a cure is found, people should be aware of some common myths regarding Alzheimer’s.
Myth 1: Memory loss is a normal part of aging
Reality: While it’s normal to have occasional memory challenges as we age, such as forgetting names of someone you just met, when that memory loss disrupts one’s daily life, that is a cause for concern. The frequent memory loss that is part of Alzheimer’s results in needing to rely on memory aids or family members for things that one previously handled on their own.
Myth 2: Alzheimer’s is not a fatal disease
Reality: Alzheimer’s disease is America’s seventh-leading cause of death — ahead of breast and prostate cancers combined. It slowly destroys brain cells, ultimately leading to the loss of body functions and death.
Myth 3: Alzheimer’s only affects the elderly
Reality: 6.7 million Americans over age 65 are living with Alzheimer’s. More than 200,000 additional people in the U.S. under age 65 are living with the disease.
Myth 4: The risk from Alzheimer’s is the same for everyone
Reality: While the main risk factor for Alzheimer’s is aging, some population groups are at greater risk than others. Black Americans are twice as likely as whites to be diagnosed, and Hispanic-Latinos are 50 percent more likely. And, as a group, two-thirds of Americans with Alzheimer’s disease are women.
Myth 5: I can ignore the symptoms of Alzheimer’s and get by
Reality: Some people are able to temporarily work around the memory loss and other symptoms of Alzheimer’s, compensating in other ways, but delaying diagnosis is detrimental because it also delays access to medications, supportive services, planning and other resources that help both the person with Alzheimer’s as well as caregivers and loved ones. Delaying the diagnosis does not delay the progression of the disease.
To learn more about Alzheimer’s disease and services available through the Alzheimer’s Association, go to www.alz.org or call the free helpline, staffed around the clock by trained professionals, at (800) 272-3900. All programs are available to families at no charge.