Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common form of dementia, responsible for an estimated 60-80% of cases. The range in estimated cases has to do with the difficulty of diagnosis; Alzheimer’s can only be definitively diagnosed by autopsy. There are an estimated 5.2 million cases in the US currently, but the number is projected to increase to as high as 16 million in 2050. Worldwide, there were an estimated 44.4 million cases of Alzheimer’s or other dementias last year, according to Newsweek.
Despite the prevalence of Alzheimer’s, many of us have misconceptions about it. A recent 12-country survey by the Alzheimer’s Association found that 59% of respondents believe that Alzheimer’s is a normal part of aging. It’s not, though its prevalence increases with age. In fact, after age 80 there is roughly a 50% chance of developing Alzheimer’s. The increased prevalence of Alzheimer’s in recent decades is largely a consequence of our increased life spans.
Those in India (84 percent), Saudi Arabia (81 percent) and China (80 percent) were most likely to believe that Alzheimer’s is a normal part of aging. In contrast, the surveyed countries least likely to confuse Alzheimer’s with normal aging were the United Kingdom and Mexico, though even there, at 37 and 38 percent, the misconception was far from rare.
The study also found other misconceptions about Alzheimer’s. Among respondents, 40% believed that Alzheimer’s isn’t fatal. It definitely can be in advanced stages, though many sufferers die of other causes first. Also, 37% believed that the only people at risk are those with a family history of Alzheimer’s. Early-onset Alzheimer’s is strongly familial, and the more common late-onset form (i.e. onset after age 65) is influenced to a lesser extent by genetic factors, but Alzheimer’s can also occur in those whose families had previously been free of the condition.
The Alzheimer’s Association has designated June as Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month. They are particularly interested in conveying the magnitude of the problem posed by Alzheimer’s and other dementias. The numbers are indeed large. Statistics alone tend to create distance from the individual humans affected, though. Each sufferer has sustained tremendous loss. Many have lost not only the ability to form new memories, but also their orientation as to time and locale, their ability to care for themselves, even their very sense of who they are. Then there are all the caregivers, family members, and friends affected. This tragedy is incredible in scope. Let’s all support those who suffer from cognitive impairment, and those who care for them, in whatever way we can.