Many popular movies over the years have portrayed living with common diseases such as Lou Gehrig’s disease in "The Theory of Everything" or leukemia in "The Fault in Our Stars." Hollywood often over dramatizes and under informs on the symptoms, treatments and cures of common diseases.

When it comes to Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, inaccurate portrayals of the early signs and symptoms can be confusing and potentially harmful to those going through the beginning stages of the disease. Accurate portrayals can promote understanding and lessen fears and stigma surrounding the disease. With this in mind, let’s look at a few popular films centered around Alzheimer’s disease and dementia to dispel some myths and highlight the truth.

WARNING: Some spoilers below.

"Still Alice" (2014)

"Still Alice" follows a highly-functioning professor at Columbia University, Alice (Julianne Moore), as she navigates through her younger-onset Alzheimer’s symptoms, diagnosis and life with the disease.

Moore successfully captures the early symptoms of younger-onset Alzheimer’s for someone in their 50s. She struggles to remember specific words during lectures that she would normally never forget and has moments of short-term memory loss and confusion with routine tasks she usually performed with ease.

The film does a great job of showing the stages of accepting an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Alice initially denies her symptoms and tries to ignore them, then attempts to control and finally accepts her diagnosis with grace to live well with the disease.

The progression of her disease is accurate in that the audience sees Alice slowly fade and go through the early, middle and late stages of Alzheimer’s disease. However, the progression of these stages occur all within about a year, with Alice ending up in full-time care by the end of the film. While younger-onset Alzheimer’s does progress faster than more typical cases, this is not wholly accurate as the disease usually progresses over the course of a decade, rather than one or two years.

Additionally, Alice’s case of Alzheimer’s is pretty rare, as younger-onset Alzheimer’s make up only 2 to 3 percent of the total population of people living with the disease.

It is not surprising that "Still Alice" receives such high marks on accuracy as the films’ writers and director consulted with the Alzheimer’s Association during filming. Overall, the film does a great job portraying younger-onset Alzheimer’s, especially in the early and middle stages of the disease.

"The Notebook" (2004)

"The Notebook" follows Noah (Ryan Gosling) and Allie (Rachel McAdams) in long flashbacks to the summer they met after high school and fell madly in love. Life took them in different directions but their love brought them back together after a few years apart. The movie fast forwards to when Allie and Noah are in their 70s portrayed by Gena Rowlands and James Garner respectively. Allie lives in a nursing home with full-time care to help with her advanced dementia. The specific type of Allie’s dementia is never specified in the film. She does not recognize her husband or her children. Noah visits her every day and reads her a “love story” that is really the story of their lives in hopes that she will one day “come back to him.”

Allie is over the age of 65 and a woman, statistically the largest demographic living with dementia, which is accurate.

In one of the most emotional scenes of the film, Allie and Noah are dancing together while Allie has a lucid moment and remembers Noah. She asks Noah, “How long do we have left?” as if she suddenly remembers she has dementia, but without any of the cognitive impairment the disease brings. Living with dementia is not a switch that turns on and off suddenly. While many persons living with dementia do experience lucid moments of memory recall, it is very rare to go from complete confusion to having no cognitive impairment whatsoever in the course of a few minutes and back again. After dancing for a few minutes, Allie pulls back and is completely confused by who Noah is and does not recognize him at all.

This movie also does a poor job of portraying how a caregiver should act toward their loved one living with dementia. Noah reads love stories from their younger years every day to Allie in her senior care living facility. This is very sweet and often makes Allie feel happy to hear such nice words even though she doesn’t remember the story is about her. But, Noah has an ulterior motive. He is hoping that one day her memories will come rushing back to her all at once and she will fully remember him and the life they built together. We see this happen once in the movie, in the scene described above, and when Allie does remember her husband she is momentarily happy, and then deeply distressed.

Noah causes her to feel upset and agitated after her brief lucid moments, which is not a healthy way to care for a loved one living with dementia. It is important for caregivers to be in the moment with their loved ones living with dementia. Whether they are living in the past or are concerned about something they think is going to happen, it is best for caregivers to provide reassurance and support. Instead of trying to get them to be in "our time zone,” be present in theirs.

Overall, this film is a classic example of Hollywood taking an emotional condition and over-dramatizing it to make a movie more thrilling for audiences. While the movie is a heartwarming love story, it should not be referred to as an accurate portrayal of Alzheimer’s or dementia.

The Alzheimer’s Association Greater Missouri Chapter is hosting a “Know the 10 Signs” class Nov. 8 at the Columbia Senior Center. This class can be a great first step to learn more about the early signs of Alzheimer’s versus normal changes with age. The class is free and open to anyone who would like to learn more about the 10 early signs of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. To register, call 573-424-3125.

Janette Nichols is the community outreach specialist for the Greater Missouri Alzheimer’s Association.