Getting Old With a Sense of Humor
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]
As near as I can figure, these are the five stages of elder caregiving that correspond to the Kubler-Ross states of grief:
1. DELUSION. This is where you have boundless energy and think two lives are possible: one with you as caregiver, and one with you as successful entrepreneur.
2. FRUSTRATION. This is where you realize you have been delusional and have to make a choice between the two yous. The results are tress and guilt. Stress because your intentions are still lofty, but your body is getting tired. And guilt because you know you have to give up your own agenda, but want to keep it.
3. ANGER. This stage starts with resentment. You may start thinking part of what’s going on is on purpose—that your loved one is intentionally “pretending” some of the sickness. Or you think they’re not trying hard enough to cooperate with your care. You are in constant correction mode here, and getting angrier because your [barely] loved one keeps repeating the same frustrating behaviors (see Elder Rage).
4. DESPAIR. You finally get it that it’s not their fault. You accept that the disease is controlling your loved one and getting worse. You stop blaming them, and instead heap all the blame on yourself because you still think you ought to gain control over this caregiving business but can’t. Along with despair you have increased guilt and exhaustion.
5. RELEASE. In this stage you finally give up control. You realize you cannot do this entirely by yourself. You delegate care (maybe for a day or two of day care, maybe institutionalization). The result is considerably less stress; even joy; and certainly wisdom.
I just finished reading Peter Whitehouse and Daniel George’s book The Myth of Alzheimer’s.
How dare you! you want to say when you first see the title. My mother went through hell with this disease, and you’re saying it’s all imaginary? HOW DARE YOU!
Then you read the book and understand.
I’m not sure I agree with the entire revision of the story of Alzheimer’s, but I did like the tenor of the book. It’s compassionate toward those who suffer from dementia and even more so toward those who suffer from the stigma of dementia. It is angry at Big Pharma—the machine that markets fear of dementia so they can sell their mostly ineffective drugs. And it is angry at the medical establishment that succumbs to that marketing—toward doctors who accept gifts (in disguise) in exchange for prescribing Big Pharma drugs to their patients.
Dr. Whitehouse stresses that he was one of the cogs in that machine. His research helped write the story of Alzheimer’s as a disease, and his advice was sought after by pharmaceutical companies as they worked to develop drugs like Aricept and Namenda.
He was part of the machine until he realized he had helped create a monster that now feeds on the stigma of dementia such that no one is allowed to age with dignity if aging includes any level of dementia. The stigma of dementia has been blown up so large that anyone with a tinge of it is considered finished. People are no longer a mixed bag of assets and deficits. Once a person’s memory starts to go, he has no value unless the “deficit” is “fixed.”
Dr. Whitehouse points out instead that even with cognitive deficits, human beings still have plenty of assets to draw from in living fully satisfying lives.
So what is the myth?
Here’s a fascinating animation superimposed over a lecture by psychiatrist and writer Iain McGilchrist on the two hemispheres of the brain. You may have to watch it 15 times to really get it.
Another thing I got from Oliver Sacks’ book was a new notion of the power of music in dealing with dementia. My previous post on music and Alzheimer’s dealt exclusively with the notion of music as a memory stimulant. But Sacks’ book made me realize that music can be used as a tool to organize thought and action in the present—in the midst of neurological damage.
Yesterday as I lay down for a recuperative nap, I listened to a Scarlatti sonata in the background, and immediately got a visual sense of what goes on in the brain when music is played. The first picture that came to mind was an animation of DNA transcription: that funny little zipper head that makes a perfect copy of your DNA as it unzips the double helix. Nibble, nibble, nibble, copy, copy, copy. Then I saw Scarlatti’s sonata as doing the opposite with my thoughts: grabbing all the randomness in my mind and knitting it into a useful strand, or, if you want to be more esoteric, turning it into functional narrative.
In Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, the first clinical case is of a man who had lost all “sense of familiarity:” he could not recognize faces, body parts, food, clothing. Sacks wondered how the man (also a music professor) could function with this neurological deficit, so he went to visit him in his own home. It turned out the man had a very musical brain, and he functioned by humming a tune as he went about his daily business. He could eat as long as he sang, but if interrupted, would no longer recognize his food and would stop eating. He could dress by the same means. His wife would set out his clothes for the day, and he would only recognize them as clothes and dress himself once he started singing! His musical brain was compensating for his lost sense of recognition.
And now I remember a funny little entry by Bob Demarco on the Alzheimer’s Reading Room that is seriously brilliant. He talks about using music to stimulate his mother into action:
My sister was shocked when I told her on the phone that I finally “convinced” my mother to drink prune juice after years of trying and failure. Joanne was here and saw my mother refusing to drink and calling the prune juice poison. It was only after I introduced the “prune juice song” that my mother starting drinking the juice every day and the dreaded Poop-E problem was solved.
I also have the pee song, the poop song, and a long list of songs soon to be number one hits.
This is exactly what Oliver Sacks would have recommended! Music and Alzheimer’s (and Parkinson’s and most other dementias): stimulating the mind into action.
As I was sitting listening to our various conversations around the table, something struck me as different this year. We’re all hovering around 50—give or take a couple years—and the aging process is beginning to take a more prominent seat at the table. Not only do conversation topics start with the premise of aging: declining health, the cost of health insurance, etc, but it seems that no matter what the topic, it eventually touches on something to do with aging.
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We already know that a Mediterranean diet helps stave off signs of dementia, but who wants to eat flavorless vegetables all the time?
If you think you have to sacrifice that deeply satisfying taste of butter and meat that you don’t typically get in a vegetable-rich diet, you don’t know Yum Sauce! This sauce is of Japanese origin and is full of protein, B-complex vitamins (B1, B3, B6, B12), and antioxidants—and best of all, it rounds out the flavor of anything you put it on with a “meatiness” that will satisfy the carnivore in you.
The dish pictured here is a prime example of a Mediterranean diet with a Japanese twist: a bed of baby spinach leaves with sauteed butternut squash, topped with Yum Sauce. Use this sauce on any steamed vegetable, over rice, or even on salad, and you’ll be on your way to fighting memory loss!
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup nutritional yeast
3 packets of lemon or orange-flavored vitamin C
2 Tbsp soy sauce
4 Tbsp almond butter or peanut butter
2 cloves crushed garlic
1/2 cup black beans with juice
1 tsp cumin powder or curry powder
1 tsp white pepper
Throw everything in a blender and puree until smooth. Store in a refrigerator for up to one week.
Now that’s what I mean. You read something about Alzheimer’s, and all of a sudden you see evidence everywhere that you’ve got it and that your life is over.
I’ve avoided reading Still Alice for years precisely because I knew it would send me reeling with the truth of my own “probable” early-onset Alzheimer’s. But I did finally pick it up, and, sure enough, suffered a major breakdown right about chapter three. Yikes! I do have it. Just like Alice, I forgot I was supposed to work on Friday, and when my sister called to remind me, I crumbled. It’s not just that I forgot. It’s that I forgot and didn’t have that nagging feeling telling me that I was forgetting something eating away at me. It was the peaceful forgetting that terrified me. Surely this doesn’t happen to a person unless they have Alzheimer’s. Ever. Right?
Is this forgetting normal or something more sinister? Is it stress from caring for Mom with Alzheimer’s and Dad with Parkinson’s (with a touch of menopause for me), or am I following in my mother’s footsteps?
The lucky thing for me is that I don’t have medical insurance–which means I can’t go to a doctor for a diagnosis. I say I’m lucky because, as we all know, it’s not so much the disease that hurts people, it’s the diagnosis. And it’s not just any diagnosis. Cancer, people rally around you. Alzheimer’s or any kind of mental illness, and the room empties out.
Shoot, you can have the disease for years, but as soon as you get diagnosed, that’s when the tazing starts. People just automatically take out their stigma-tazers and start shooting. And they think they have it set on stun, but really those stigma-tazers are always set on kill.
So my question is, what do you do when you read or hear about terrifying conditions to keep yourself from assuming yourself into that condition and absorbing the fear that is often marketed with it? How do you “keep your head, when all about are losing theirs”? (Kippling)
And once you’re diagnosed, how do you overcome all that tazing?
Chuck’s blog on early onset Alzheimer’s is, I think, a courageous way of dealing with one such diagnosis.
What is your way of dealing with the fear of Alzheimer’s–whether it’s diagnosed or imagined?
Today a nice physical therapist came to assess a treatment program for Dad—to help him regain his balance and mobility and in so doing help him milk the summer ahead of us.
A couple hours later, while sitting at the table Dad asked me in an unusually clear voice, "What's the agenda?"
I looked up from the computer, slid my glasses down, and asked back, "Agenda for your physical therapy?"
"Agenda for life?" (I thought I’d go for the gusto).
"Yes." He smiled.
"Ah. Well. The agenda for life is to live more fully. You are going to get back to being more fully you. We are going to visit the local museum, go see the natural wonders around us, go to the big city to check out the OMSI exhibit."
He smiled more broadly. We're on the right track.
Shoot, this Parkinson's is going to be a nuisance, but we are going to live one shaky bite, one shuffling step, one tough lesson, one adventurous ride, one grateful day at a time.
The other day my sister saw a note I had written on a sticky pad. It was a list of things I needed to do, one of them being to order a refill of Mom’s Seroquel. Except my sister read “Mom’s sequel” and thought I had written a book about Mom and was now working on a sequel. Not a far-fetched idea, as I’m always writing some book or other under the covers with a flashlight (so to speak).
Turns out I’m not writing a sequel about Mom.
Unless I’m writing it with my life.
In my last post I expressed fear that I might be following in my mother’s footsteps. Who wants to inherit Alzheimer’s? But the more I think about it, the more I would be proud to be called my mother’s sequel. I’m certain that anyone who knew Mom would give their right arm to be compared positively to her. She was the most selfless person I’ve ever known. The prayingest person I’ve ever known. The best cook, the best artist, the most humble…
I can remember a couple tizzy fits Mom threw right in the middle of menopause. But dang, other than that it’s hard to think of anything bad coming from Mom.
So I have to say that it is with great pride that I would love to be able to say “I am my mother’s sequel.”
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.
The other night I attended an author’s reading of a first-time novel.
The main character in the novel is an immigrant computer programmer with terrible social skills trying to navigate his way around the American culture. His mistakes are endearing and a good mirror into the idiosyncrasies of American culture.
In the question and answer period of this reading, someone shot up their hand and asked if the main character suffered from Asperger’s Disease because of his mental brilliance and social ineptitude.
I think the author’s answer was something along the lines of “uh…” which mirrored my own reaction to the question. I’d smiled at the word Asperger’s and felt my stomach lurch at the word Disease. I’ve always thought of Asperger’s more as a cool color to be rather than a disease. Besides, why the need to label?
Why can’t we just accept a different package of assets and challenges in a person and enjoy their uniqueness rather than feel the need to cubbyhole folks into categories?
I just looked up the number of brain-related disorder labels and found a list of 50, among them “intermittent explosive disorder” which is basically the display of temper tantrums. Get real, folks!
What are labels & diagnoses? Something to shield other people from us as well as something to hide behind?
My recommendation for anyone suffering from excessive labeling (both giving and taking) is to read the book “You are Special” by Max Lucado. The interesting notion in this book is that positive labeling can be as harmful as negative labeling because it enslaves us to other people’s opinions. Freedom comes in checking in constantly with our Maker and knowing He loves us as we are.
Read and re-read and practice what you read.
Dare to be yourself.
Deep In The Brain is a cerebral self-examination written by a philosophy professor who was riding the top of a success wave when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Talk about the relationship between mind and brain! Here is one who, thanks to his training, steps outside himself to make an objective assessment of his behavior even as he battles the attachment he has to that self.
In this book, Helmut Dubiel analyses his response to the personal and social implications of his Parkinson’s disease. He does not blame or excuse. Rather, he tries to put his and other’s reactions in context of the overarching laws of social interaction.
There is pain in this book. There are lies and pity and anger and judgment. But mostly, there is acceptance of the facts of disease and an acknowledgement of man’s irrepressible will to live and to thrive.
Yesterday as I read this book to Dad, I noticed him fidgeting more than usual. I stopped and asked him what was the matter. He said, “It seems like you’re reading about me.” I explained that this was a philosophy professor writing about himself. Dad calmed back down and listened with interest. Dad doesn’t talk about his inner battles much, so this would logically be painful for him. But good. I think this was one of Professor Dubiel’s hopes–that through his honest self-examination, others would feel released from the need to hide from their disease and, in so doing, find relief.
I’ve often asked people, “Which would you prefer: to lose your body or to lose your mind?” Given that I live with one parent with Alzheimer’s and the other with Parkinson’s, this question has personal weight. In his book, Professor Dubiel clearly expresses his preference for holding onto the self despite the ostracism brought on by the physical distortions of Parkinson’s. Knowing you are being unfairly rejected is still preferable to knowing nothing at all. On the other side, in Still Alice the protagonist affirms this appreciation for the self when–in a lucid moment–she acknowledges “I didn’t meant to get this way. I miss myself.” The mind is a far greater gift than the body.
Of course, in the end, Parkinson’s takes the mind as well.
My take-away? Pray for a cure for both diseases; forgive my and others’ shortcomings; enjoy today.
The U.K. recently decided that Aricept and other acetylcholinesterase inhibitor drugs can be prescribed for mild Alzheimer’s cases (in addition to moderate cases. See article U.K. Reverses Stance On Alzheimer’s Drugs NICE is now recommending that three drugs known as acetylcholinesterase inhibitors—Aricept from Pfizer Inc. and Eisai Co.; Reminyl from Shire PLC; and Exelon from Novartis AG—be considered for use in patients with “mild” forms of Alzheimer’s, in addition to the patients with “moderate” forms of Alzheimer’s for whom NICE previously endorsed the drugs.). The more obvious reason is that these drugs should be getting cheaper once their patents expire, and therefore easier on the state’s prescription coverage budget. The less obvious reason is the relative ignorance Brits have regarding the sport of baseball.
First, you have to know how neurons and neurotransmitters work. Here is a short animation that shows how neurotransmitters work in the brain:
The cycle is a fantastically efficient one. Neurotransmitters are shocked into action, released into the synapse where they interact with receptors on the other side of the synapse, then swept up to make room for the next wave of neurotransmitters.
In Alzheimer’s, the favorite neurotransmitter tagetted by drug companies is acetylcholine because it is crucial for the formation of new memories. In the Alzheimer’s brain, there is an increasing shortage of acetylcholine, making it harder and harder for the brain to form new memories. The enzyme that recycles acetylcholine is acetylcholinesterase. What Aricept (an acetycholinesterase inhibitor) does is inhibit this recycling process, so the neurotransmitters hang around longer in the synapse and interact more often with memory-forming receptors.
Here is a video of a different neurotransmitter (serotonin) and its recycling inhibitor. It’s a good picture of the process that takes place with acetylcholine and acetycholinesterase inhibitors:
All of this is easier for Americans to grasp, because it can be compared to baseball: in baseball, players are stored in the dugout, called into action on the field, then recycled back into the dugout when their action is no longer called for.
Suppose that a team were to lose all but four of its players. Someone would have to block the dugout so the players wouldn’t sit back on the bench but rather take up the bat once more.
The players are the acetylcholine, the rule that sends them back into the dugout is the acetycholinesterase, and the person blocking the dugout when there is a shortage of players is the acetylcholinesterase inhibitor.
This also, by the way, illustrates why Aricept et al eventually fail: the four players get tired of playing the whole game all season long and quit.
Someone must have finally explained baseball to the Brits.
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