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5 Common Myths About Dementia, Debunked by an Expert

Here's what you're getting wrong about the deadly disease.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

There are many sources of information addressing dementia which can easily become overwhelming to navigate through, for a person recently diagnosed and their families. In my experience as a dementia care educator, I've learned the importance of understanding the common misconceptions related to dementia in order to prepare oneself for preventing, reducing the effects of, or treating dementia. Read on to find out more—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


Myth 1 – Dementia and Alzheimer's Disease Can be Used Interchangeably

A woman suffering from stress and headache, sitting on couch massaging temples with fingers, looking at camera with painful face expression.

When providing dementia education to families and employees, I have found that a misconception is dementia and Alzheimer's Disease are the same and the terms are often used interchangeably. Dementia is a term describing a group of symptoms including the loss of memory, language, problem-solving, and other thinking abilities which are severe enough to interfere with daily life. It is not a particular disease and there are a wide range of causes of dementia, including Alzheimer's Disease. Although Alzheimer's impacts your memory similar to dementia, Alzheimer's is a specific progressive neurological disorder that causes the brain to shrink and brain cells to die, impacting memory, behavioral and social skills. Individuals experiencing memory concerns are not necessarily suffering from Alzheimer's but could be experiencing other underlying medical concerns that can cause a dementia, or they may be developing another progressive dementia other than Alzheimer's that will need to be identified in order to be treated properly.


Myth 2 – Dementia Cannot be Reversed

older woman taking supplement
Shutterstock / fizkes

Dementia is often described as an irreversible disease, and while there are many progressive types of dementia which cannot be reversed, there are several types of dementia that can be reversed based on the cause of the dementia. A progressive dementia is one that continues to progress, and it is not reversible; according to the Mayo Clinic, Alzheimer's Disease is the most common progressive dementia and it impacts healthy neurons and fibers connecting them from built up plaque and fibers in the brain. Other progressive dementia includes vascular dementia, Lewy body dementia, frontotemporal dementia and mixed dementia – which is a mixture of various causes such as Alzheimer's Disease, Vascular dementia and Lewy Body dementia. A reversible dementia is one that can be treated once the underlying medical condition is identified. Some of the causes of reversible dementias or dementia-like conditions are infections and immune disorders, metabolic problems and endocrine abnormalities, nutritional deficiencies (lack of B12), medication side effects, subdural hematomas, brain tumors, normal-pressure hydrocephalus, alcoholism and emotional disorders (stress, anxiety, and depression). It is important to note that our emotional state can have a significant impact on our cognitive abilities. If you are experiencing the symptoms of a dementia, it is important to seek medical advice from a physician who may identify one of these conditions that may present itself as a dementia.  


Myth 3 – Memory Loss in Older Adults is Not Normal

older man with dementia talking to doctor
Shutterstock / Robert Kneschke

Older adults in this generation have access to multiple sources of information, including the internet and social media, and they may self-diagnose and come to their own conclusion about the cause of their memory lapses (for example, natural aging memory loss may be perceived to be a dementia). Moderate decline in memory and cognitive skills are considered to be a normal part of aging. Normal age-related memory decline should not disrupt your daily living and allow you to live a full life. Examples of normal age-related memory loss may include making poor decisions periodically, missing a monthly payment, forgetting which day it is and remembering it later, sometimes not remembering which word to use or losing things from time to time. When determining if there is a more serious cognitive concern occurring, it is important for individuals to consider external factors (stress, lack of sleep, etc.) that may be contributing to their memory loss.


Myth 4 – Forgetfulness is the Only Early Sign of Dementia

Sacred mature woman.

It is common for individuals to believe the first sign or symptom to look for when diagnosing dementia is memory loss, particularly when there is a family history of dementia. Older adults may assume simple age-related forgetfulness is early onset dementia with no consideration for other potential signs. There are several additional relevant symptoms other than memory concerns that may indicate the onset of a dementia. For instance, increased confusion, reduced concentration, personality or behavioral changes, apathy and withdrawal or depression, or loss of the ability to do everyday tasks. In order to determine if you are experiencing early signs of dementia, it is important to see your physician to assess your mental capabilities. There are more than 40 cognitive tests used to detect dementia, such as Addenbrooke's Cognitive Examination-Revised (ACE-R), the Mini-Cog test, the General Practitioner Assessment of Cognition (GPCOG), and the Informant Questionnaire on Cognitive Decline in the Elderly. 

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Myth 5 – People Living With Dementia Are all the Same

Senior couple cooking healthy food and drinking red wine at house kitchen.

It should be emphasized that individuals living with dementia are not just persons who have a been measured against a list of symptoms to satisfy the criteria of a specific diagnosis. You may be presented with two older adults who are the same age, have the same diagnosis and are at the same stage of their cognitive decline yet their signs of dementia are demonstrated in entirely different ways. Often, we look at the type of dementia someone has and do not acknowledge or consider who the person was and still is. We may not look at the life experiences they have had or their personality, which also contribute to how they present their dementia; based on the assumption that the intrinsic elements that make someone uniquely themselves have disappeared. Thinking of individuals living with dementia as a product of their disease and not their own unique person, impacts the manner in which they view themselves and can put their emotional safety at risk. Person-centered Care is an approach to dementia care that focuses on individual personal experience as the basis and standard of living and therapeutic effect.  Thomas Kitwood, a psycho-gerontologist, first used this term as a different approach to dementia care, relative to the traditional medical approach. Kitwood's model of care looks at the psychological needs of someone living with dementia, which includes comfort, attachment, inclusion, occupation, and identity with love at the center. At the core of who we are is Self – which includes our values and beliefs and maintaining selfhood is fundamental in person-centered care. As caregivers, it is valid to assess the commonalities of persons living with dementia, however, it is also critical to recognize the individuality of each person, or we risk dementia negatively impacting their inner self which can ultimately contribute to the overall decline of a person living with dementia.

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Final Word From the Expert

woman having serious chat with her doctor

When understanding dementia and how best to support someone in your life, it is important to familiarize yourself with the numerous terms related to dementia, understanding that each dementia develops differently and has varying outcomes. For older adults who are concerned about their lapses in memory, identifying what is normal age-related memory loss and what are some common early signs of dementia are important to ensure there are no underlying matters. In addition, it is important to understand that each person has developed dementia as an individual, with their own life experiences and psychological and emotional needs that must be met in order for them to thrive as a human being. Once we begin looking at a person living with dementia as just that, a person, we stop stigmatizing what the characteristics and behaviors someone living with dementia should present and begin accepting each person for who they are and have been their whole lives, who also happen to have dementia. And to protect your life and the lives of others, don't visit any of these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.

Amy McDonough is the dementia Care Manager at United Active Living, a Calgary-based retirement community, where she leads the United Minds program.

Amy McDonough
Amy McDonough is the dementia Care Manager at United Active Living where she leads the United Minds program. Read more about Amy