19th May 2008

Better targeted education is needed to prevent misconceptions held by the general public about Alzheimer's disease, according to Queensland University of Technology researcher Dr Karen Sullivan.

Registered psychologist and senior lecturer for the School of Psychology and Counselling in the Faculty of Health, Dr Sullivan has been studying people's misconceptions about the condition for the past five years, and said there were a number of things which people misunderstood about it.

"I have looked at public perceptions of Alzheimer's disease, as well as the perceptions of carers and the patients themselves, with the aim of determining what they know and what they think they know but may have wrong," she said.

"I wanted to see if there are issues about the illness which may require less focus in education programs, because they are already understood, as well as things that may need to be explained more or differently."

She said most people were aware that Alzheimer's affected older people, that it involved memory loss, and that patients who were losing the ability to care for themselves needed to feel as independent as possible while still being assisted by carers.

The misconceptions she found among the public included an under-estimation of the life expectancy of a patient diagnosed with the condition, as well as the causes of Alzheimer's.

The study also found that some misconceptions were held by patients and carers as well as the general public.

"People did not know how to respond to wandering, which is a common symptom in patients, and they did not know how the diagnosis is confirmed," said Dr Sullivan.

"Most thought Alzheimer's could be diagnosed by mental status tests, but in reality it is a diagnosis of exclusion, whereby every other condition has been ruled out. Alzheimer's can only be confirmed post-mortem."

Another misconception she said people had was that prompt treatment of Alzheimer's could prevent the worsening of symptoms.

"This is a misconception because the real reason prompt treatment is needed is to rule out other diagnoses which may be treatable," she said.

She said this research could inform and enhance communication and learning about the illness.

"This study shows that adult learning models of education could be focussed around misconceptions regarding Alzheimer's disease, and the time and resources already being spent on patient and community education could be focussed around issues that are confusing to people rather than those which are already understood," she said.

"When educating people about Alzheimer's disease, and finding out what the public already knows, a different measurement approach may be needed that picks up on the presence and nature of potential areas of misunderstanding.

"I think people do have a general desire to learn as much as they can about the condition, because the prospect of experiencing a progressive degenerative condition like Alzheimer's disease is concerning to many people, and if the educational approach we use can 'build' on what people already know, I think lots of benefits will follow."

Media contact: Sharon Thompson - Media Officer - 3138 4494 or sharon.thompson@qut.edu.au

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