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Published on: April 20, 2010
by Madeline Vann, MPH for Everyday Health:
Maybe you’ve heard that drug abuse causes dementia, or that red wine will protect you from the disease. Here are the facts.
Perhaps because Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are something of a mystery, there are a number of myths surrounding their causes. A few of these common myths hold some truth, but some are complete falsehoods that muddy the water about the roots of symptoms and how to prevent dementia.
Need help separating good dementia information from bad? We’ve gone to an expert to get the facts.
Myth No. 1: Dementia is caused by exposure to aluminum.
Cooking in aluminum pots and drinking from aluminum cans came under suspicion as a cause of dementia a number of years ago, when this myth first spread. But there is no truth to the fear, says Paul B. Rosenberg, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences in the division of geriatric psychiatry and neuropsychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.
“This was an inference from a type of dementia caused many years ago by aluminum that made its way into dialysis patients, but aluminum has nothing to do with dementia as we diagnose it now,” explains Dr. Rosenberg.
Myth No. 2: Dementia is caused by early drug abuse.
Rosenberg says this is an area that has not been thoroughly explored, but currently there are no data to support a connection between drug abuse and Alzheimer’s or dementia. Drug abuse isn’t a healthy choice for many other reasons, however.
Myth No. 3: There is nothing you can do about dementia once you have it.
While dementia is by definition a progressive disease, there are steps you can take to slow its progress and find ways to compensate for your lost cognitive abilities in the early stages. Work with your doctor to find medications that might help address symptoms of dementia, and try to stay as physically, mentally, and socially active as possible.
Myth No. 4: Concussions in youth and middle age cause dementia.
News about the increased rates of early dementia in former football players has stimulated this myth, but the jury is still out, says Rosenberg. “There is a suspicion that concussions in young or middle age increase risk for dementia in old age, and we are trying to study this now.”
Myth No. 5: Red wine protects you from dementia.
“There is a little evidence that low-level social drinking — one drink or less per night — may be protective, but that finding is quite controversial,” says Rosenberg. The controversy arises because heavy drinkers tend to die young, skewing the data. Meanwhile, people interested in the protective benefits of resveratrol, a chemical found in red wine, should take heed: “You probably have to drink 20 bottles per night to get a good dose,” says Rosenberg.
Myth No. 6: If someone in your family has dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, you will have it too.
Not so, say the experts. Some forms of dementia do have a genetic component, especially if a close relative such as a parent or sibling has the disease — but as with many inherited diseases, you have some control over how inherited risk plays out in your own life. “Our evidence is that good heart health — exercise, controlling blood pressure and cholesterol — will help prevent dementia,” says Rosenberg.
Myth No. 7: Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are the same thing.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, but there are other types of dementia characterized by different symptoms.
Myth No. 8: Gingko biloba can prevent memory loss.
For a while, researchers were looking at the herbal supplement gingko biloba as a way to slow or prevent memory loss — but studies have shown no effect on memory. “Gingko was a nice idea, but it didn’t work at all,” says Rosenberg.
These are just some of the myths that surround the subject of dementia. But remember, it’s always advisable to get dementia information from reliable sources, such as your doctor, instead of relying on rumors about causes or ways to prevent dementia.
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