Getting Old With a Sense of Humor
I don’t know how much I’ll be able to write about Parkinson’s here. If I write about Parkinson’s, it’ll be about how it’s affecting Dad. And if I tell you the things this disease makes Dad do, you won’t have a pretty picture of Dad. And that ain’t fair.
Here’s just a little, white example. A couple days ago Dad had to go to the bathroom. He asked what direction the bathroom was, and I pointed it out. He walked to the bathroom door, then asked me again where the bathroom was. I told him he was standing at the bathroom door. He said, “And now what?” I explained that he had to walk over to the toilet. He was standing four feet from the toilet and asked, “Where?” I put pressure on his back and gently led him to the toilet. He said, “And now?”
I had to help him through the whole process.
The concept “how to back up” seems to be the biggest obstacle his brain has to overcome. He can’t figure out how to back up to the toilet before sitting, or once he’s in a chair, how to back up from the edge. The same when he goes to bed.
My sister and I try “scoot back, Dad.” He scoots forward even though he’s already on the edge of whatever. We try changing the cue. “Put your back here” (while patting the back of the chair). Nothing. “Lift your bottom and move it back.” Nothing. Yesterday I tried switching languages. I said, “Put your butt in reverse” in Portuguese. He couldn’t do it, but he did double over laughing. And that’s a huge gift.
But these gifts are hard to come by. So I probably won’t write much about Dad and his Parkinson’s. I’d rather you see the adventurous man who loaded up his wife and eight kids in a van and drove from New York to Bolivia in 1966. This man taught us all kinds of good things about nature and God, and I’d rather not leave you with a highly unbalanced picture of who he is.
In my research on Alzheimer’s and glucose metabolism, I ran across a fascinating article about the brain’s default system–that part of the brain that is affected in Alzheimer’s Disease; that part of the brain that hogs glucose like no other part of the brain.
In The Secret Life of the Brain, Douglas Fox brings together research on the default network beginning with Dr. Sokoloff who, in his attempt to find out why the brain uses so much glucose (20% of the body’s supply), discovered that the brain uses as much energy while “at rest” as it does while performing tasks.
Later, a neuroscientist named Marcus Reichle discovered a kind of “brain within the brain” that works its butt off when it’s supposedly in “idle mode.”
Raichle and Shulman published a paper in 2001 suggesting that they had stumbled onto a previously unrecognised “default mode” – a sort of internal game of solitaire which the brain turns to when unoccupied and sets aside when called on to do something else. This brain activity occurred largely in a cluster of regions arching through the midline of the brain, from front to back, which Raichle and Shulman dubbed the default network (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 98, p 676).
It was found that some parts of this network devoured 30 per cent more calories, gram for gram, than nearly any other area of the brain. Since part of this default system is in constant communication with the hippocampus (which records every day memories), Reichler speculated that its function was to sort, evaluate, and categorize memories in such a way that would allow the brain to use the past as an “inner rehearsal” for considering future actions and choices.
Brilliant. Just when you think daydreaming is a waste of time, it turns out it’s crucial for living.
Raichle now believes that the default network is involved, selectively storing and updating memories based on their importance from a personal perspective – whether they’re good, threatening, emotionally painful, and so on. To prevent a backlog of unstored memories building up, the network returns to its duties whenever it can.
In support of this idea, Raichle points out that the default network constantly chatters with the hippocampus. It also devours huge amounts of glucose, way out of proportion to the amount of oxygen it uses. Raichle believes that rather than burning this extra glucose for energy it uses it as a raw material for making the amino acids and neurotransmitters it needs to build and maintain synapses, the very stuff of memory. “It’s in those connections where most of the cost of running the brain is,” says Raichle.
Reichler later attented a lecture by an Alzheimer’s specialist and was shown a map of beta amyloid plaques (those clumps found in Alzheimer’s autopsies) in the brain. The picture looked exactly like the default network!
Raichle, Greicius and Buckner have since found that the default network’s pattern of activity is disrupted in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. They have also begun to monitor default network activity in people with mild memory problems to see if they can learn to predict who will go on to develop Alzheimer’s. Half of people with memory problems go on to develop the disease, but which half? “Can we use what we’ve learned to provide insight into who’s at risk for Alzheimer’s?” says Buckner.
That got me thinking…
Maybe one reason we lose memories is that our lifestyle doesn’t allow for much rich idle time like when we would sit on the porch sipping sweet tea on a hot afternoon. So the default network can never do its work of sorting and categorizing memories, and consequently we lose them.
And if this is a problem with the present generation, how much moreso for the upcoming generation. We are consumed with having something to pay attention to all the time. Just look at TV screens these days: not only do you have the main screen, but there’s the pop-up ad for the “next show,” a caption for what’s going on on the screen, and a ticker at the bottom of the screen for what’s happening elsewhere.
Maybe part of the solution for AD is the “quiet space” to be incorporated in school, at work, and at home. Hmm, come to think of it, I offered this very solution in a comment to an article in Time Magazine back in 09 (Turn Off, Tune In, Log Out):
I predict that the twitterification of our society is going to lead to an exponential increase in early-onset Alzheimer’s. We’re increasing the rate of input to our brains and decreasing the time for processing information, and our brains are going to revolt. That, in turn, will lead to the next big industry: de-twitterification rooms where you can sit alone and unconnected, with nothing but a giant aquarium and a beanbag. -Marty
Rose Lamatt recently sent me her book Just a Word: Friends Encounter Alzheimer’s—the true account of her best friend’s rapid decline after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and of the author’s life as a caregiver. After reading (or should I say “crying”) my way through this book, I decided I had to recommend it to all my readers as well.
I read and liked Still Alice, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Just a Word when it comes to describing the wretchedness of Alzheimer’s and of caregiving and of life in a nursing home after home-based caregiving is no longer an option. Just a Word may not be as polished a work as Still Alice (my editor’s eyes kept making corrections until the story sucked me in), but this book will give you the real thing: Alzheimer’s with poop and bruises and the constant anguish of those trying to love and care for its victims (unlike the sanitized version in Still Alice).
In all my reading on Alzheimer’s, I have not found anything so powerful as this book to stir a desire to rid this disease from the face of the earth!
This week I started wearing the monovision contact lens that I got three years ago. This is the lens that you wear in one eye to correct for reading while leaving the other eye free to focus on things in the distance.
I tried this lens years ago but found it unacceptable. Everything was at once blurry and sharp, and I couldn’t tolerate the tiniest bit of blur in my vision.
I realized it was a mental adjustment—I would have to learn to choose the sharpness of one eye over the blurriness of the other at any distance until all I saw was sharpness. But I was impatient and gave up on the adjustment period, resorting instead to donning and doffing reading glasses when in need.
Now my close-up vision has gotten so bad that when I tried the monovision lens this time, my mind was quite happy to accept the gift of semi-sharpness without the need to scout around for glasses. It took a very short time, in fact, for my brain to adjust and see all things in focus at all distances.
Remarkable how the brain can do that.
I learned a similar lesson in life with the attitude of gratitude. I was going through a very stressful, heart-rending period when nothing seemed to be “working” for me. One day I plopped down on the floor and began to say “thank you” for every part of my life. It was a turning point in my stress level. I began to see not problems but challenges; not curses but blessings. And what a difference it made!
Alzheimer’s and other devastating diseases, I’m noticing, can be lenses that change the way we see life; they change what we think is important; they bring into focal clarity the gift of family, friends, community, connection. I’m amazed as I surf the blogs written by sufferers and caregivers to see the softness that takes over when anger ends. I’m amazed, for example, with Michael J. Fox’s attitude toward his Parkinson’s, calling it a “liberating” gift. I’m touched by the may bloggers who share of the immense struggle of caregiving and the eventual gratitude it produces in them.
It’s always a choice the person makes to see disease differently. Or rather, to see the value of the person despite the disease.
In this season of Thanksgiving, it is good to see the change that Alzheimer’s and other diseases have brought to our self-centered culture.
So, thank you to all of you who write and share of your struggles, forming a new community that chooses to rise above bitterness and embrace even the bleakest, darkest days of life for the goodness they produce.
A Compromised Gut and Aging
Suppose we throw out the acetaldehyde-in-the-blood-and-brain hypothesis. Even if the liver can keep up with the load, the process of breaking down acetaldehyde into a harmless acetate itself will upset the NADH/NAD balance.
NAD (nicotinamide adenoid dinucleotide) is the most important co-enzyme in the body. Aldehyde dehydrogenase depends on it to break down toxic aldehydes. SIRT1 depends on it to keep cells from committing suicide. It is the key to glucose metabolism. Etc.
A shortage of NAD is a normal part of aging:
Once pancreatic β cells and neurons start having functional problems due to inadequate NAD biosynthesis, other peripheral tissues/organs would also be affected through insulin secretion and central metabolic regulation so that the metabolic robustness would gradually deteriorate over age at a systemic level. This cascade of robustness breakdown triggered by a decrease in
On the way back from the errand, I was no longer me but a dim-witten twenty-something boy, and the SUV was now a semi truck. I climbed into the truck and found that it was in such a tight spot that it would be nearly impossible to get the monster out and down the alley onto the street. Nevertheless, I managed.
From there on, driving home was a brink-of-disaster experience. Sometimes the truck would jacknife and tilt over and I would dangle from the window and the truck would almost fall on top of me. But it would always right itself just in time to not kill me.
I kind of lost my way home, and at one point drove the truck into a military building. Somehow the folks there mistook me for a war hero and ordered a police escort to get me home. I was too dim-witted to correct them.
I drove home never quite feeling in control, yet chortling the whole way—the cops behind me scratching their heads as they swerved to follow. I arrived home and STILL no one would act on the fact that I was not OK.
When I awoke this morning I had to laugh at my mind’s lack of subtlety. That definitely sums up life right now. This caregiving business feels like you are always on the cusp of something that could kill but ends up leaving you alive. Barely.
I especially got a kick out of the war hero thing—a commentary on everyone always saying “You two sure are wonderful. You are going to get huge rewards in Heaven!”Merrily merrily merrily merrily
Life is but a dream.
By now it’s not news that scientists at Case Western have successfully used a cancer drug to clear plaques from the brains of mice that were engineered to have Alzheimer’s, resulting in a reversal of rodent dementia. The hope is that this drug will do the same for humans.
Here is a more in-depth explanation of Bexarotene (“Drug Reverses Alzheimer’s Symptoms in Mice”):
Alzheimer’s disease arises in large part from the body’s inability to clear naturally-occurring amyloid beta from the brain.
In 2008, Case Western Reserve University researcher Gary Landreth, professor of neurosciences at School of Medicine, discovered that the main cholesterol carrier in the brain, Apolipoprotein E (ApoE), facilitated the clearance of the amyloid beta proteins. [...] The elevation of brain ApoE levels, in turn, speeds the clearance of amyloid beta from the brain. Bexarotene acts by stimulating retinoid X receptors, which control how much ApoE is produced. …bexarotene improved memory deficits and behaviour even as it also acted to reverse the pathology of Alzheimer’s disease [and] worked quickly to stimulate the removal of amyloid plaques from the brain.
[T]he drug addresses the amount of both soluble and deposited forms of amyloid beta within the brain and reverses the pathological features of the disease in mice.
John Thorndike’s The Last of His Mind is a work skinned in the devastating story of Alzheimer’s, but shows what an unexpected gift caregiving can be for a child who longs to understand the one who shaped so much of his own understanding of life and relationships.
In these pages, John Thorndike gives up the comforts of his normal life in Ohio to care for his father in the last year of his battle against Alzheimer’s. John takes this time to examine himself in the light of the two people who shaped him most—his proper, emotionally absent New England father and his passionate, dissatisfied mother. “No wonder I study my parents,” he says. “Within the compass of their lives, everything is foretold.”
More than anything, the author wants a peek at his father’s heart, but finds it impossible to reach through the shining armor that encases him. In the end, though, he finds that it’s not his father’s armor that shines, but his character. And in the end, the year of loneliness and frustration yields the sweetest of fruit: a softer, mended heart.
John Thorndike brings out the True by exposing the Fraud, and it’s contagious. I feel wholly exposed after reading this book, yet more able to forgive myself, to love Dad—imperfections and all, and to accept the inherently flawed but courageous effort we all make in loving those closest to us.
True, this book is about the beastliness of Alzheimer’s, but it should be read by anyone who hungers to know a parent and to find themselves healed in the acceptance of an imperfect knowledge.
In continuation of Alzheimer’s and Glucose Metabolism: The Niacinamide Experiment Part 1
This post is simply me mulling over things I’ve read in light of Mom’s dementia and my own experience with stress and mental short-circuiting, with the conclusion that in some cases of Alzheimer’s, intestinal flora could be greatly to blame. My conclusion also points to the possible way niacinamide could function in correcting one of the malfunctions in the gut-brain axis.
The Gut-Brain Axis
In-depth studies of human intestinal microbes are just now coming into maturity. The Human Microbiome Project is fueled by the increasing belief that the population of bacteria and yeasts that inhabit the human digestive tract is greatly responsible for how the body and mind develop and how they continue to function or malfunction as we tinker with the balance of flora in our gut:
Visionaries are hoping for cures for some forms of obesity and anorexia along with various forms of cancer, asthma, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, lupus, and most of the major psychiatric diseases. In the future, Blaser [of the infectious-disease research lab at New York University] says, pediatricians could help prevent these diseases by infecting babies with a starter kit of friendly bacteria. “Bottom line, humans and our fellow animals have been colonized by microbes for a very long time, going back a billion years. The microbes that we carry have been selected because they are helpful to us. They participate in human physiology. They are a compartment of the body, like the liver or the heart.” (1)
When the BP oil spill happened in the Gulf of Mexico, we were all
All my life I considered myself an introvert, a private person, ungifted in the art of validating people.
In my early forties (a couple minutes ago), I bought a small restaurant, and all this changed. I grew by leaps and bounds in my fascination with people of all stripes and in my ability to dig beneath the surface and find the gold within. I grew in my ability to remember names, know faces, discover connections, and find new ways to validate people. I got high on it—on my ability to validate. It validated me in return.
Then one day this abruptly ended. I crashed. I had been working seven-day weeks for two and a half years, and my body and mind couldn’t take it anymore. The first scary sign of stress was when some of the music I played every day at the cafe lost its familiarity. I was evidently unable to learn new music. Then it was faces. New ones wouldn’t stick, and old but infrequent ones were a struggle to recall. I was filled with doubt when in conversation: what had we talked about the previous time? Did they just come from Europe, or were they going to Europe? I couldn’t remember.
Stress fried my brain, and my validation skills went with it. Nothing, but nothing hurt as much as having a newly-made friend appear and me not know who they were for ten or twenty seconds. The eager look on their face faded instantly, and nothing could bring it back. No amount of remembering in a few seconds would make up for my initial inability to validate them. I died a little bit every time it happened.
I wanted to resign from life. Retreat. Embrace my pre-cafe, introverted self. I wanted to be given a chance to explain (there is no such thing). I cried, prayed angrily, tried to bargain with God.
How do you love people when the principal organ of love—the brain—is shot?
I realized eventually that I was mourning my ego, not my lost ability to validate people—because I hadn’t lost the ability. I’d only lost the ability to do so in a way that would make me look good. There were and are plenty of opportunities to extend kindness and touch people’s souls even if we can’t immediately recall a face. It just takes an awful lot of something to give up the craving for reciprocity.This also showed me that validating was not my natural gift. To meet someone for whom it is, you must meet Jan Petersen. This afternoon I watched the video Jan’s Story: Love and Early-Onset Alzheimer’s again and re-discovered a true hero. Even with severe dementia, Jan knows how to seize each day and touch each person she meets. Jan’s is both a heart-wrenching and heart-warming story. Many people go through life mentally intact yet unable to see the goodness that surrounds them. Then you meet someone like Jan whose indomitable spirit sheds significance on everything and everyone she sees—regardless of her inability to name things.
The validation breakdown begins with us who think Jan’s story is nothing but a tragedy. But I tell you, if I could pick one trait to take with me on the dark road into oblivion, I’d pick Jan’s ability to validate without requirement; to love without strings attached; to milk each moment and each encounter.
That is the validation breakthrough!
Here are four more of my current heros—people with early onset Alzheimer’s who put themselves in the crosshairs of the stigma-tazers so they can help the rest of us see a little bit of the road ahead:
Here’s what happened: I’m not a “from scratch” web coder, so I installed what’s called a “theme” for my niece’s website and used it as a springboard to create a look that would capture her life and style.
A lot of work goes into designing the look of a website, but it has to pale in comparison to all the work that goes into creating themes, or “platforms” on which creative designs are based. By the time I get my hands on designing a website, all the hard prep work has been done, and I’m presented with a lovely spring board that allows me to jump and flip and fly wherever my creative juices lead.
Here is something frustrating about clinical trials of Alzheimer’s drugs: the FDA requires that such trials show an almost immediate improvement in memory tests of participants in order for the drug to get approval, disregarding improvement in other symptoms, and consequently derailing a possible cure for this dreaded disease.
Here is why I think there is an inherent problem with this guideline:
If you go the the Alzheimer’s Association website and take the interactive tour of a brain with Alzheimer’s (a fantastic tool!), you will notice that there is a general pattern to the progression of Alzheimer’s and its accompanying symptoms. Specifically, looking at slide 13 you will see that the first part of the brain to be affected by Alzheimer’s is the inner core where the hippocampus resides—that part of the brain responsible for short-term memory. From there, damage spreads outwards to the cortex of the various lobes. As the second image in slide 13 shows, the Frontal Cortex is affected in mid stages of Alzheimer’s. This area is responsible for attention, social skills and intelligence (or wit). It is associated with “personality.”
Now, if an effective drug for Alzheimer’s were to be developed, you would expect to see the least damaged areas respond first, followed by the most heavily damaged areas.
Such were the preliminary results of the clinical trial of Dimebon. In reading the various anecdotal accounts of the Dimebon trial (see Bob DeMarco’s piece on the Alzheimer’s Reading Room), the results seemed to show precisely this initial response: Alzheimer’s sufferers reported increased alertness, social skills, and wit. Here is a sample quote from the various testimonials:
The major drug companies are focusing on memory. Are they after the right target? I’ll tell you this, in weeks 6 through 18 in the Dimebon clinical trial my mother was more engaged with me, more aware of her surroundings, more interesting, and more like her “old” self then she had been in six years.
The least damaged areas of the brain were affected in the 12-week trial! Then the trial was stopped because the inner (most damaged) area of the brain showed no marked improvement.
Would it not make sense to glean from the trial that a logical reverse course of the disease was set in motion and to continue it to see if the pattern held?
Pfizer et al, could you give us another 12 weeks when studying Alzheimer’s please?!
[Note: this analysis is mine alone. It may not be true that the least affected areas would show improvement first]
If you click on the picture at left, you'll hear the loveliest little story about a nursing home in Germany that decided to install a fake bus stop in front of their facility for patients to go to and "de-stress." Folks would go out to the bus stop thinking they'd get on a bus and go home. But after a few minutes of waiting, they'd forget why they were there and go back inside, no longer agitated and afraid.
So, if lying achieves a good end, is it OK?
Looking at it another way, is the aim of interaction to be correct or to be kind?
In the bus stop story, think about what it is the patient really wants when he waits for the bus. He wants home and family. But why? He wants these things because they mean acceptance and love.
So if the bus stop allows a patient to calm down enough for a staff member to have a soothing, friendly visit with them, is it not giving them what they were after in the first place? And is this not Truth?
This is the same rationale for communicating with Alzheimer's patients even when they are home with family. The point isn’t to constantly correct your loved one ("no, it’s not morning, it’s evening;" or, "no, my name isn’t Mary, it’s Marty"). We’re not here to elicit factual correctness from each other, but to honor each other as full-fledged beings created in the image of God—regardless to what extent we are broken.
And, no, I'm not a post-modernist saying there are no facts, or that facts are what we want them to be.
Just saying, facts aren't the point. Love is.
The topic of fasting and Alzheimer’s has been on my mind lately because, well, Alzheimer’s is always on my mind and because recently a friend of mine got on this diet where you’re supposed to eat six small meals a day to trick your body into not storing fat.
Since intermittent fasting has been shown to slow body and brain aging, I wonder (the fat part aside) what this continual eating is doing to the brain.
From Psychology Today (2003):
It has been known for years that sharply restricting the calorie intake of laboratory animals increases their life span. But a new study by researchers from the National Institute on Aging found
It's just one doctor after another these days…
We barely got to the clinic and we were both already exhausted: Dad from getting dressed, fed, squeezed into a jacket, compressed into the car, ejected from the car, and hung in a wheelchair. Me from doing all that to him without the cooperation of his muscles. We didn’t even want to go into the clinic. I told Dad that what we should do is write a children's book about aging and how fun it is. Dad laughed. I said we could describe how you get to ride around in a cool scooter—even inside the house. And how you get to have cool leopard print all over your skin without paying a cent for it. And how if you get skin cancer on your ear, you have to have a chunk cut off (like Dad) and then you can fit right in with the folks at Rivendell or Lothlorien.
I really see some potential there.
Might as well take this big old lemon and make lemonade.
(P.S. If you have any more ideas for the book, let me know)
- alzheimer's antipsychotics art award body-language book-review cancer caregiving causes coping cues cure death dementia diagnosis diet Dimebon disabilities drugs early-onset ego end-stages fear gadgets gut heredity humor images language lifestyle metabolism movies music parkinson's phenotype prevention progression research seniors slideshow stigma stress symptoms validation violence
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- Alzheimer's Reading Room - In it for the long run with Dotty
- Alzheimer's Research Forum - Targeting Breakthrough Research
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- Changing Aging by Dr. Bill Thomas
- How to Live a Longer Life - Nutrition ideas and secrets on increasing longevity
- Journal of Alzheimer's Disease - an international multidisciplinary journal with a mission to facilitate progress in understanding the etiology, pathogenesis, epidemiology, genetics, behavior, treatment and psychology of Alzheimer’s
- Kris Bakowski's Blog on Early-Onset Alzheimer's - Kris is an active advocate for Alzheimer’s research
- Posit Science Blog - mind science
- The Dopamine Diaries - Lucid reflections on Dementia Care and Aging Well
- The Hope of Alzheimer's - Mary Kay Baum and sisters with early-onset speak out
- The Last of His Mind - Joe Thorndike, once the managing editor of Life and the founder of American Heritage and Horizon magazines, succumbs to Alzheimer’s
- The Myth of Alzheimer's - A doctor’s perspective on Alzheimer’s
- The Tangled Neuron - A Layperson Reports on Memory Loss, Alzheimer’s & Dementia
- The Brain’s Springboard to Creativity
- Citizen Science: Help Shed Light on the Brain-Gut Connection
- Getting Old With a Sense of Humor
- Living With The Jabberwocky
- Free Academy for The Aging Brain
- Water and The Aging Brain
- Best of the Web Nomination
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- Guest Post: I Wish I Knew Then What I Know Now
- The Brain: Divided We Conquer
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- The Compulsion to Label
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