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Myths about Dementia, Alzheimer's and Memory Loss

A doctor looks at brain scans to understand dementia, Alzheimer’s and memory loss.

In the U.S., more than 5 million people are living with Alzheimer's disease. This number is growing, as more than 13 million Americans age 65 and older are expected to have Alzheimer's by 2050.

We asked Dr. Nancy Sicotte, neurologist and chair of the Department of Neurology at Cedars-Sinai, to debunk the five most common myths about dementia, Alzheimer's and memory loss. 


"Reducing your risk of dementia requires starting these lifestyle changes from the get-go, not waiting until you're 70."


Myth #1: All types of memory loss are a sign of dementia

"One of the biggest misconceptions about dementia is that every kind of memory loss someone might experience is Alzheimer's disease—and that's not true," Dr. Sicotte says.

While Alzheimer's is the most common form of dementia, there are many other types. 

Dr. Sicotte says that a combination of underlying changes in the brain can cause memory loss, but memory loss is only one component of diagnosing dementia.



Myth #2: Dementia is hereditary

While there are a few, rare types of dementia with a strong genetic link, the overwhelming majority of dementia and Alzheimer's disease cases are not inherited.

"You can't control your genetics, but there are some very, very effective things people can do to decrease their likelihood of developing dementia," Dr. Sicotte says.

Myth #3: Dementia cannot be prevented

New research suggests that eating healthy, getting regular exercise, not smoking and engaging in cognitive stimulation may decrease a person's risk of cognitive decline and dementia.

"Reducing your risk requires starting these lifestyle changes from the get-go, not waiting until you're 70," Dr. Sicotte says. 

Even if someone experiences changes in their memory as they age, they can mitigate or slow down the progression of dementia, Dr. Sicotte says.

In 2019, the Alzheimer's Association reported studies which suggested that adopting four or five healthy lifestyle factors—including a healthy diet, at least 150 minutes a week of moderate to vigorous exercise, not smoking, light to moderate alcohol intake and participating in brain-stimulating activities—reduced the risk of Alzheimer's by 60%.


In Discoveries: Gateway to the Brain


Myth #4: In healthy people, your brain remains relatively unchanged as you age

Dr. Sicotte says researchers are continuing to uncover new information about how our brains change function as we age.

There's actually a lymphatic system in the brain itself. Lymphatic vessels, located in the brain's outermost membrane, act as a 'cleaning system' to drain large molecules and immune cells from cerebrospinal fluid to the outer areas of the brain.

"Until about 10 years ago, no one had discovered that there was a lymphatic system in the brain," Dr. Sicotte says.

"One thing that's becoming clear is that brain health is not separate from the health of other organs."



Myth #5: People who often forget things probably have some memory loss or dementia

Surprisingly, people who visit their doctor complaining of memory loss might actually have depression, not dementia.

"When a patient says, 'I'm having memory problems,' it may be a sign that they are depressed," Dr. Sicotte says.

She says that if a spouse or family member is the first person to notice that a patient is having difficulty remembering things, this may be a sign of dementia.

"The tell is often if a patient is brought in by their spouse, and when the spouse says they have memory problems, the patient says, 'What are you talking about?'" Dr. Sicotte says.

New treatments on the horizon for memory disorders

While there is currently no cure for Alzheimer's or dementia, it's important to recognize the signs and talk to your doctor about the risk factors.

"This is such an important public health issue," Dr. Sicotte says. "The best and brightest will be working on this to come up with treatments and prevention for dementia, Alzheimer's and other memory disorders."