An estimated 5.8 million Americans of all ages are living with Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia.

The progressive disease begins with mild memory loss and often leads to losing the ability to have a conversation or carry out daily activities. Memory loss worsens over time, and patients eventually can’t control movement.

Alzheimer’s, the nation’s sixth-leading cause of death, often in its late stages affects the ability to walk, sit and, eventually, swallow. People with advanced Alzheimer’s become vulnerable to infections, especially pneumonia.

Despite Alzheimer’s being fairly common among people age 65 and older (1 of every 10 has it), there are misconceptions about the disease.

Dr. Mark Pippenger, a behavioral neurologist at Novant Health Neurology & Sleep in Charlotte, helps debunk some of the common myths about Alzheimer’s.

Myth: Alzheimer’s is a normal part of aging.

Fact: “One of the reasons people think that is because we all have memory change when we get older,” Pippenger said. “But in Alzheimer’s, that memory change is severe enough that it interferes with your ability to do everyday functions like keeping your bills paid or keeping up with your medicine. It’s clearly not normal, but it’s very common.”

Myth: If a close relative has Alzheimer’s, you certainly will, too.

Fact: “The risk runs in families,” Pippenger said. “There are a few genetic forms of Alzheimer’s disease, and those all cause disease that begins in the 40s or 50s, and they’re rare. The majority of cases are sporadic, and they’re not determined by a single gene. Your risk is a little higher, but it’s not even 50 percent if you have an immediate family member with Alzheimer’s. It’s not super high and you’re definitely not destined to get it.”

Myth: Alzheimer’s is preventable.

Fact: “There are a lot of products touted as helping memory,” Pippenger said. “No pill, vitamin or diet supplement has been found that’s beneficial. But you can lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by exercising. Physical exercise, at least 30 minutes at a time and at least three times a week, can dramatically lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease. It doesn’t prevent it, but it lowers the risk and that’s an important thing.”

Myth: If you have occasional memory loss, it must be Alzheimer’s.

Fact: “When you get older, your mental processes slow down,” Pippenger said. “You may have trouble remembering names of people or things. On the other hand, you can still manage to carry out your functions, because those names will usually come to you later on. Maybe not when you need it, but a little later.”

Despite claims that working lots of word puzzles, brain games and reading can prevent the disease, there’s no scientific proof to back that up, Pippenger said. Those activities will help keep your mind sharp as you age and can slow the pace of Alzheimer’s, he said. But it’s no preventive measure, and there is no cure.

As the number of older Americans grows, so too will the number of new cases of Alzheimer’s. By 2050, the number of people age 65 and older with Alzheimer’s is projected to grow to 13.8 million, unless medical breakthroughs find a way to prevent, slow or cure it, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

Other noteworthy statistics, according to the association, include:

  • Almost two-thirds of Americans with Alzheimer’s are women.
  • Older black Americans are about twice as likely to have Alzheimer’s or other dementias as older white Americans.
  • Hispanics are about 1.5 times as likely to have Alzheimer’s or other dementias as older whites.

Find the help you need diagnosing and dealing with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia at Novant Health.