Most people understand that Alzheimer’s disease exists, and that it has a profound effect on the brain. But the number of myths and misconceptions surrounding the disease have distorted the public’s perception, and in some ways, inhibited their ability to prevent and/or manage it. 

Better understanding Alzheimer’s disease could help you stave off the condition in your own life, better help loved ones struggling with the disease, and increase your familiarity with degenerative brain diseases in general. 

So what are the most important things to know about Alzheimer’s?

The Basics

Let’s start with the basics. Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia. It’s a progressive, degenerative disorder that affects the brain, which means over time, the condition will get worse. In Alzheimer’s, the nerve cells of the brain are attacked, destroying connections between cells and ultimately resulting in cell death. As the disease gets worse, patients will suffer from memory loss, impairments in cognitive ability, impairments in language skills, and eventually, major behavioral changes. 

There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease. However, adequate care can mitigate the disease’s advancement, and lengthen the lifespan of a patient. 

Ongoing Care

Patients with Alzheimer’s disease can receive ongoing care, designed to help them maintain their quality of life, maximize their function, and keep them safe—especially if their behavioral patterns could make them a risk to themselves. Through cognitive stimulation (like puzzles) and social engagement with other people, in many cases, the progression of the disease can be slowed. In addition, there are some FDA-approved medications for the disease that can mitigate or temporarily slow the progression of certain symptoms. 

However, ongoing care for Alzheimer’s patients can be expensive. Assisted living communities can cost $40,000 a year, and nursing homes with ongoing care can cost $90,000 a year or more. For some patients whose symptoms are severe, costs may be even higher. 

Symptom Variance

Alzheimer’s disease doesn’t look the same for all patients. It manifests differently based on the individual. Some patients will deal with the disease for many years, suffering declining cognitive abilities but undergoing no major behavioral changes. Others will show major changes in mood and disposition, but may retain some of their cognitive abilities longer. This makes it hard to come up with a universal treatment plan, since every patient may need something slightly different. 

Some of the early symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease include difficulty remembering events, difficulty concentrating and solving problems, confusion about the passage of time, difficulty understanding space or visual problems, issues with language (such as finding the right word), and exercising poor judgment when making decisions. Later, patients may withdraw from social events, suffer sudden mood changes, or have trouble accomplishing basic tasks in their daily routine. 

Recognizing and Diagnosing the Disease

Because the symptoms are so varied, and because they emerge gradually, it’s hard to recognize and diagnose the disease. The first symptom for most patients is memory loss, or difficulty recalling details of the past. However, this is also an ordinary symptom of aging, and may not be related to Alzheimer’s disease. It’s difficult for most people to recognize the difference between “standard” memory loss and Alzheimer’s-related memory loss. In most cases, a doctor will order brain imaging scans before diagnosing the condition. Alzheimer’s disease is associated with a buildup of amyloid plaque in the brain, which can easily be seen in a brain scan. 


Alzheimer’s isn’t fully understood, but it’s clear that some people are at higher risk than others. For example, people with fewer years of formal education are at higher risk of the disease than people with more years of formal education. It’s also noted that certain demographics, including people with Down syndrome, are at naturally higher risk for the disease. 

That said, there are many lifestyle factors within your control that could potentially lower your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Studies suggest that there’s a measure of “cognitive reserve” in each individual, serving as resistance to the degeneration associated with dementias. You can increase this cognitive reserve by increasing your educational opportunities, introducing yourself to new experiences, socializing more frequently, and spending more time on leisure activities. Exercise and a healthy diet are also correlated with lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and there’s evidence to suggest that certain supplements, like omega-3 fatty acids, could help delay the onset of the condition as well. 

There’s still much we don’t understand about Alzheimer’s disease, and about degenerative brain disorders in general. However, we know more now than we ever have before, and if you want to increase your chances of avoiding or mitigating the effects of the disease in your own life, you’ll need to learn as much as you can about it—and avoid the misconceptions in heavy circulation.