Alzheimer’s Fears: The Media Feeding Frenzy

by ToriDeaux on April 9, 2008

The benefits of cognitive fitness programs still haven’t hit home with most people, but their fears of Alzheimer’s, dementia, and everyday memory loss are growing by leaps and bounds.

Thank you, Loyal News Media! Let’s all be skeered, yay! (Is sarcasm good for the brain? Quick, someone do a Newspaper photo by <shocker> Newspaper on Stock.Xchngstudy!)

Seriously, my Google News Page has been bogged this month down with news of Alzheimer’s related research.

Nearly every article cited brain-numbing statistics from the Alzheimer’s Association: Every 71 seconds, someone develops Alzheimer’s. More than 5 million people in the U.S. currently have Alzheimer’s disease. As many as 10 million baby boomers are expected to develop Alzheimer’s – that’s 18% of them. Us. Scared yet?

clock_redThe risk-factor stories the news focused on were just as alarming.

First, we were told about how the risk of Alzeimer’s increases if one of our parents has it. It doubles if both of them suffer from the disease. Though the study is still not complete, the risk-factor seems linked to early onset of the disease, making it even more frightening. The good news? While you can’t change this risk factor, you can change other factors – and the indication of a strong genetic link can help researchers who are struggling to understand, prevent and treat Alzheimer’s.

Just One Article:
Washington Post:
Two Parents with Alzeimer’s

sun_UV_16 Next, there’s the “Big Belly” study.

I’m not sure why, but the news media *loves* stories that can be accompanied by photos of obese people’s stomachs, so this one was a big hit.

Turns out, the same abdominal fat linked to increased risk of heart disease and diabetes is also linked to multiple forms of dementia, including Alzheimer’s. And the risk isn’t limited to obesity – even those of normal weight who had a “pot belly” had a doubled risk factor. More chilling, the abdominal measurements were taken when the participants were in their 40’s… suggesting that lifestyle factors in middle age (and younger) impact the brain’s health in later years. There didn’t seem to be any information available about whether losing the weight after 40 helped, and with the numbers of obese people in the US still soaring, this is pretty worrisome.

Just One Article:
Abdominal fat and Alzheimer’s

sad_24 Finally, there’s the story about depression and Alzeimer’s. Yes, depression and dementia seem to be linked. If you’re depressed, your risk factor of dementia may go up… making you 2.5 times as likely to suffer from it.

It’s easy to understand why patients with developing Alzeimer’s often become depressed – but as it turns out,the depression sometimes appears first, perhaps even contributing to the risk of Alzheimer’s. Depression is known to reduce cognitive function on its own, but it’s not clear why the Alzheimer’s connection exists; too little is known about the causes of either condition, and it’s all really just speculation at this point.

Just One Article:
Depression and Alzheimer’s

To be fair, the scary stories were just the few most widely picked up. Positive, but far less widely reported stories also hit my news reader (which is set to focus on neurological stuff). There were headlines suggesting protective benefits of caffeine, links between congnitive function and fish-oil, the on-going research for Alzheimer’s vaccines, and tests for early detection.

None of these studies really provide answers; most of them are only suggestive, not proofs.

But that doesn’t stop them from being MAJOR BOLD SCARY HEADLINES!! or sending me, personally, into a panic attack over the fears of becoming increasingly dull-witted. (I’m shamefully vain about my intellect, after all)

One useful source in battling headline insanity is the UK’s NHS website section, Behind The Headlines (UK tabloids are especially prone to sensationalism, so its a big help) but in general, the studies themselves are behind science-journal membership walls, and tough for layfolks to figure out. The result is that we’re getting often distorted glimpses of the studies, a lot of conflicting information, and general overload that makes us less likely to actually *do* anything to reduce our risks.

Mind you, I do appreciate the spot light on Alzheimer’s and any other type of brain-research. Raising awareness is crucial for funding research, getting people diagnosed, into treatment, or to take active steps for prevention. But so few of the articles went beyond the sensational, and rarely was the information on brain-fitness mentioned more than passingly.

Making people aware of the risks is good.

But a serious effort to *also* make them aware of the potential for preventing, delaying or reducing symptoms would be much, much better.


MindTweak: “All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. We can vulgerize that society. We can brutalize it. Or we can help lift it onto a higher level.”

- William Bernbach
(Advertising Executive)


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Reg 04.10.08 at 9:45 am

Just great.
My mom has Alzheimer’s AND dementia.
I definately could drop some belly inches.
I’m in my late 40’s.
And after reading this NOW I’m also depressed.
Sigh…. I think I’ll go for a drive.
Now, where are my *%@+*”:#^ keys?
Wait, what are those? Oh yeah keys.
I’ll put those right in the fridge where they belong.

2 Tori Deaux 04.10.08 at 2:04 pm

Here, have a cup of coffee and a Lumosity membership, Reg. Just don’t drop your mouse into the coffee, and you’ll be fine :)