Faced with an incurable illness like Alzheimer’s disease that strikes unpredictably, it’s not surprising that we grasp at any information that gives us a sense of control and a feeling of understanding. This desire to understand and control the uncontrollable helps to explain why we’re so susceptible to holding myths about Alzheimer’s as fact.
Scientists and researchers strive to improve our understanding of Alzheimer’s disease – how and why it develops, and how it one day might be cured. They are busy researching the disease to find a cure by 2025, while government agencies and nonprofit advocacy groups like the Alzheimer’s Association are working to educate the public about the latest findings.
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Despite the best efforts of legitimate researchers and groups that work to educate the public, misinformation and rumors about Alzheimer’s disease still circulate. Sometimes this misinformation takes the form of urban legends while in other cases disreputable businesses promote myths about Alzheimer’s in an effort to sell products akin to snake oil. Sometimes it’s legitimate media outlets that sensationalize or make too much of preliminary or tentative Alzheimer’s findings.
One source of rumors is email. Snopes.com maintains a list of urban legends spread by chain emails, and Alzheimer’s disease is mentioned in more than a few.
1. Being overweight can help protect you from Alzheimer’s.
One chain email said “that being five to ten pounds overweight could protect people from ailments ranging from tuberculosis to Alzheimer’s.” No such study was ever conducted and the fact the study was supposedly conducted by a fast food restaurant makes the claim even more ridiculous. In fact, obesity has been linked to dementia and a rumor that tells people that it’s healthy to be overweight is downright dangerous.
2. Artificial sweeteners, like aspartame, cause dementia.
The Snopes database of urban legend chain emails also contains a lengthy email warning against the dangers of aspartame, an artificial sweetener known under the trade name NutraSweet. The chain letter claims that aspartame causes Alzheimer’s, and the claim actually prompted a response from Dr. David G. Hattan, Director of the Division of Health Effects Evaluation of the FDA. He writes that “the legitimate attempts that have been made to confirm and replicate allegations of from aspartame ingestion have not been successful and the USFDA continues to consider this to be among the most thoroughly tested of food additives and that this information continues to confirm the safety of aspartame.” The Alzheimer’s Association agrees, noting on its website that it’s a myth that aspartame causes memory loss.
But the misinformation about Alzheimer’s disease extends beyond silly chain emails. Some unsavory people are preying on people’s desperation for a cure by marketing completely and utterly unfounded treatments for Alzheimer’s disease.
3. A product marketed as “Grazoph Temuna” is a cure for Alzheimer’s.
An herbal medicine that a vendor refers to as Grazoph Temuna is being hawked online as an Alzheimer’s treatment with pseudoscience used to explain its supposed efficacy, “As Alzheimer’s Disease is overstimulation, things becoming all the same, this substance is a great dis-stimulator. Cleaning one’s brain cells is as necessary as cleaning one’s teeth: if you don’t clean your teeth, they rot, same with brain cells. When the teeth are cleaned, the rotting stops. The sooner you clean, the less damage there is.” The quick-buck hucksters even include ridiculous warnings such as, “Use of this formula may result in uncomfortable anti-dementia in the few cases where the brain has a false reality is stuck in place.” The snake oil industry did not die in the 19th century. It is alive and well.
A third kind of Alzheimer’s misinformation comes from legitimate media outlets who simply make too much of preliminary studies.
4. Certain vitamins and nutrients can reverse Alzheimer’s.
It’s true that nutrients found in certain foods have been associated with a lower incidence of Alzheimer’s disease. For example anti-oxidants such as vitamin E have been found to lower the rate of Alzheimer’s disease. Omega 3 fatty acids found in fish are tied to to a lower rate of Alzheimer’s disease, and so on. On our own blog we’ve reported about nutrients linked to a lower rate of Alzheimer’s. But it’s important to present this information responsibly. While eating a brain-healthy diet may lower one’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s, there is no evidence that one’s diet can reverse Alzheimer’s. At the very most, research indicates, it might slow the rate of decline. The Alzheimer’s Association says, “At this time there is no treatment to cure, delay or stop the progression of Alzheimer’s disease [emphasis added].” Reporting that implies that feeding this or that food to a loved one with Alzheimer’s will help him or her get better is simply unfounded, and unethically provides false hope to families.
Science suggests that people can lower their risk of developing Alzheimer’s through healthy eating, but the cause of Alzheimer’s seems to be more about genetics than lifestyle factors, so the benefits to be gained through healthy eating may be limited. What’s more, focusing on individual foods and nutrients rather than an overall healthy diet may be another mistake media outlets make. The Alzheimer’s Association’s philosophy is to avoid getting into the nitty-gritty of which nutrients may or may not be linked to Alzheimer’s disease. Instead they propose that people’s best bet to limit Alzheimer’s risk through diet is through an overall healthy lifestyle. For example they note the simplest and best way to limit Alzheimer’s risk through diet is simply to eat a healthy heart diet, noting “What’s good for your heart is good for your head.”
Rather than getting caught up in the pros and cons of particular ingredients in relation to Alzheimer’s, it may be best to just remember to take care of your body. After all, there are many more potentially fatal illnesses out there besides Alzheimer’s. Focusing on foods that limit your risk to Alzheimer’s disease may leave you ignoring risk factors related to other common but serious ailments such as heart disease, cancer and stroke. When you take care of your overall health rather than obsessing over individual ingredients and maladies, you give yourself the best chance for an overall healthy lifestyle and reduce your risk for multiple conditions.