A couple days ago a friend of mine called almost in tears: “I did such-and-such, and I’ve never done such-and-such before. Do I have early-onset Alzheimer’s?” I laughed. “The thing about Alzheimer’s,” I said, “is that they say not to confuse normal aging with Alzheimer’s, and then they say Alzheimer’s hits long before any recognizable […]
Because it’s Fall and crisp out and a good time to sit down to a good movie, I’m posting one of my favorite suggestions for a movie that deals with Alzheimer’s. How To Kill Your Neighbor’s Dog is an unfortunate title for a great movie about self-centeredness and the cure for immaturity. The story centers […]
Eleanor Cooney’s Death in Slow Motion: a Memoir of a Daughter, Her Mother, and the Beast Called Alzheimer’s is not just one book. This is two tales in one: a memoir of desperate caregiving and a biography. The memoir part follows Eleanor’s hyperventilated, drug and alcohol-sustained trek through the five stages of Alzheimer’s caregiving for […]
Like the title of this blog says, there are things to be learned from all kinds of dementias. Here is a particularly astounding thing to learn: severe autism does not necessarily mean the sufferer is mentally retarded. This video will shock you into looking beyond the outward appearance of those who cannot communicate and into […]
Back to the mind-over-brain thing in Alzheimer’s treatment. I saw an old friend yesterday and we caught each other up on our families. I told him I recently lost my brother-in-law to brain cancer. He said he was about to lose his sister to the same. Then he shared how his sister—who has a month […]
Definitely my pick for the most practical gift you can give yourself or a loved one suffering from Alzheimer’s.
What’s your pick?
Yesterday Bloomberg Businessweek published an article titled Mouse Study Suggests Alzheimer’s-Linked Protein Can Migrate Into Brain.
The story is this: researchers took brain matter from mice that had beta amyloid plaque (were genetically modified to have such plaque), injected it into the stomachs of normal mice, and months later found beta amyloid plaque in the brains of the normal mice.
If all you read is the headline of this story, the conclusion is that the beta amyloid from the sick mice got into the bloodstream of the healthy mice and passed through the blood brain barrier to take up residence in the healthy brains.
But if you read to the end of this article, it is suggested that there could be all kinds of reasons the healthy mice ended up with beta amyloid plaque in their brains, such as maybe there is some chemical in the plaque brain sample that passes through the blood brain barrier and causes a chain reaction that produces beta amyloid plaque—which would negate the headline altogether.
Now, watch the news and see how many people with take only the headline of this story and pass it off as scientific fact.
The moral of the story: be careful what you read and how you read it.
Yesterday I asked my sister—who is visiting from abroad—what signs of Alzheimer’s she sees in herself. She rattled off some memory problems such as forgetting names of acquaintances or not being able to place someone’s face when out of context. Nothing particularly Alzheimersy, just decreased mental sharpness.
She then asked me if I was experiencing any unusual mental hyperabilities and went on to explain how she seems to have gained a fantastic ability to call up words she didn’t even know she knew.
Funny, I told her. I had this post saved as a draft when she asked me the question. The answer is yes, I’m experiencing this very same thing, and am curious to know if there is a name for it.
Is there such a thing as hyperphasia—the flip side of aphasia? The term hyperphasia exists, and it’s defined as an uncontrolled impulse to talk. But that’s not what I’m referring to. I’m referring to the mind’s sudden ability to pull up obscure words when common words won’t present themselves. Words so obscure that we had no idea we knew them.
I’m well acquainted with aphasia—the “tip of the tongue but it just won’t come” nature of language loss. I’m also familiar with another embarrassing result of gradual mental decline: the mind’s tendency to call up words similar in shape, but wholly different in meaning from the one the user wants. Try Googling “fairy schedule” next time you want to cross the Puget Sound to see what I mean.
But what is it called when the mind calls up unknown words that perfectly fit the context they were intended for? Does neurology study mental surfeits as well as deficits?
I told my sister that I’ve had arguments in my head over this new ability. One night, for example, I went to bed, and as I lay my head on the pillow a picture of our living room doorway came to mind, and with it the word “transom.” I immediately questioned myself:
“Transom? What’s that?”
“It’s the big piece that spans the top of the doorway, dummy.”
“How’d you know that?”
“I don’t know. I just know that it is.”
“You’re probably thinking of Hansom. And I think that’s a horse carriage, not a doorway.”
“No, I know hansom is a carriage. Transom is the door thingy.”
With that, I got out of bed and looked the word up in the dictionary: a horizontal crossbar in a window, over a door, or between a door and a window or fanlight above it
“OK, you were right.”
My sister laughed and said, yes, that’s exactly what goes through her brain.
So my question is, what is this newly acquired hyper-phasia called? And is it common to everyone as their minds begin to deteriorate?
As an artist whose artistic mother also has Alzheimer’s, this movie hit home for me. It was like watching my own mother lose all her nouns, then her knowledge of interpreting nouns on a canvas, and finally her knowledge of self.
In this film, the mother’s sorrow and fear are mitigated by the son’s desire to hang out with her. I only hope his desire lasted beyond the making of the film. For the sake of all those with Alzheimer’s, I hope love lasts beyond the time the disease is an interesting artistic or scientific curiosity. I hope it lasts beyond the time a diseased person has anything at all to offer.
AC6BTV7AQCKPToday I stopped at a light and to my right was a truck hauling what looked like a small, complete house all wrapped in white plastic. I wonder if it was one of these “Granny Pods” that are becoming a hit all over the country. I don’t know what people are bellyaching about. I think these are a great idea! It would be like playing house and you wouldn’t have to put up with any teenagers blaring music from their room as you would if you lived in the real house. Think I’ll order one with a Japanese soaking tub when I get around to needing one.
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.
More on the brain’s default network:
The default network in the brain is considered a “second brain” because it turns on when the rest of the brain is at rest, and turns off when the rest of the brain is at work. Normally, that is. As people age, the default network is less and less capable of shutting down when the mind is concentrating on some difficult cognitive task as it would do in a younger adult’s brain. Since the default network uses 30% more resources than the rest of the brain, you can see how the resources available for cognitively challenging tasks decreases as we age.
In Alzheimer’s, you get the extreme case of this aging effect: the default network doesn’t shut down at all when it’s supposed to (same as in Schizophrenia–which is probably why they use antipsychotic drugs meant for Schizophrenia in Alzheimer’s patients) until that part of the brain eventually dies.
The default network is not very developed in children. It gets more active as we grow into adulthood. That makes me wonder if language is the software that runs the default network. Think about it: the default network is the part of the brain that sorts, categorizes, and edits/deletes memories, and language is the software that sorts, categorizes, and edits/deletes meaning. With language also comes prejudice, and prejudice does not exist in the very young. Also, in Alzheimer’s the default network eventually atrophies, and language ceases (just further argument that the default network is inextricably tied to language).
All of which brings me to the point of this post. Last week there were articles all over the news saying that having more than one language guards you against the worst of Alzheimer’s. Mom spoke four languages and fell prey to Alzheimer’s in her sixties–with no family history of early Alzheimer’s. Dad spoke three
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.”
Today the world has been given the very bad news that there is nothing that can help prevent or slow the progression of Alzheimer’s. The disease is a thief and a murderer, and nothing can stand in its way.
I say the folks who did these studies need to study Mom. Round out the evidence of all that hopeless progression with a little taste of surprising regression.
I wrote the rest of this post a week ago, but only got around to publishing it today:
Mom is going backwards. She’s regressing, it seems to us, and that’s a good thing when you have Alzheimer’s.
How? What? When? Where? Why? Is it wishful thinking that we’re seeing marked improvement in Mom’s cognition, or is this real?
Exactly what I’m asking myself these days. Granted, being a highly motivated observer may make my observations suspect, but I feel it would be irresponsible not to report what appears to be clear evidence of improvement in Mom’s condition. It would be irresponsible of you not to suspect my findings, but dumb not to take a look at all.
So here goes.
A few weeks ago, we who have been taking care of (or been around) Mom for the past three years noticed that we were telling people Mom was having a good month. We were used to telling people that Mom was “having a good day” every now and then. A good day once a week was a good thing. But the entire month of March of this year seemed to be “a good day.” It came to the point that we were scratching our heads saying, “Hmm. Maybe Mom doesn’t have Alzheimer’s. Maybe this was all stress, and now that she’s been de-stressed for three years, she’s coming back.”
So I decided to take inventory of the new signs of cognition (and physical improvement) coming from Mom these days. What exactly is she doing that she wasn’t doing before? This is what I have:
- Mom has gained weight. Exactly a year ago Mom weighed 85 pounds and was bed-ridden with pneumonia. Hospice pronounced her a week from the grave. Today Mom weighs 95.5 pounds. No sign of physical sickness (OK, an occasional night fever and drippy nose).
- Mom sucks from a straw. For the longest time, we were having to “prime the pump” to get Mom to suck from a straw. A year ago, when we put a straw in her mouth, nothing would happen. So we’d plug the straw with our finger, then release the contents into her mouth, and, voila, she’d start sucking. Now Mom sucks as soon as the straw hits her lips.
- Mom opens her mouth at the sight of food. Again, for the longest time we’d just get a pleasant stare when we lifted a fork to her mouth. Two years ago, it would take us a good hour and a half to get through breakfast because it was only one time out of ten that Mom’s lips would part when we brought food to her mouth. Now, six-seven times out of ten, her mouth opens like a baby bird’s. Breakfast time has been cut in half.
- Mom swallows. Up until (this is where I wish I’d kept an exact diary) about four months ago, Mom had a permanent sore on the right side of her mouth. This was caused by the fact that Mom leans to the right when she sleeps, and food that remained in her mouth (because she wasn’t aware enough to swallow) dribbled out and ate at her skin. No matter how well we brushed her teeth and how much Vaseline we slathered around her lips, the sore was there off and on for the last three years until–a few months ago. The sore has not returned.
- Mom watches TV now. Meaning, she actually turns to it, focuses on it, and laughs on cue–sometimes for a 10-15 minute stretch. This hasn’t happened at all in the past three years until this “awakening.”
- Mom stops at the photo gallery in the hallway, looks at individual family photos and “comments.” For the past three years we’ve been walking through the hallway with Mom–past a 4 foot x 4 foot photo gallery–occasionally stopping to show Mom the family photos in hopes of getting a response. She wouldn’t even look where we were pointing. And if she focused at all, it would just as likely be on a knot in the wood frame as on a photo. Now Mom takes the initiative to stop and look from frame to frame, pointing, jabbering, looking at us and back at the photos. Sometimes getting teary-eyed at our description of the photos.
- Mom is using sentences. I wrote in a previous post that Mom’s language consists almost entirely of two syllable experiments in sound with an occasional word thrown in. We used to get so excited when she uttered a word that we’d call a family member and share the big news. In the past couple weeks, Mom has used short sentences. Like three days ago when I put her to bed, I said, “Mom, I love you.” She nodded and said, “For me, for me, for me too too.” The next morning at breakfast I tried to give her some juice while she was still chewing on her eggs and she shoved my hand aside and said “Put it down down.” I put her down for a nap in the afternoon, put on some Vivaldi, and did a farcical ballet dance (a la BodyVox). She nodded and said, “Yes. I do too too too.” Then that evening when I tried to give her her Seroquel (ground up in some juice), she shook her head. I kept bringing the juice to her mouth, and in exasperation she said, “Tsk! What what what do you do?” (Translation, “cut it out!”).
Four sentences in two days! Yesterday was a quiet day for Mom. No miraculous signs of anything. I’m dying to report more on this healing process, but Mom is not a science project, and I have to remember that she is worth all my love no matter what direction her mind and body take.
But I do think it’s worth mentioning that something has happened to Mom that has sent this Alzheimer’s into some sort of retreat. There is more than death taking place in her brain. Somewhere, somehow, regeneration is taking place as well.
Have any of you had the experience of watching a loved one with Alzheimer’s have a good month? I know Bob DeMarco recently reported an extraordinary event with his mother Dotty. Huge “regressive” step.
Next question will be, what could be causing these amazing regressions? We may have to rely on each other–the caregivers–to find the answer rather than on lab tests alone.
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:
Memory can be wonderful and cruel all at once.
It’s been almost a year since Dad died, and I’ve discovered that it takes a year to fully recover from the exhaustion of caregiving. It takes a year to recover fully enough to crave the chance to do it a second time over—to do it right this time.
Last Thursday was one of those gorgeous days that make your spirit soar. It was just warm enough, just breezy enough, just relaxing enough, just full enough of good plans that I wanted Dad here to enjoy it with us. I was in the middle of a supermarket parking lot when that thought came to me, and it was the beginning of a four-day breakdown.
Why can’t I be given a second chance? I’ve got all my energy back now, and I swear if I’m allowed, I’ll show Daddy all the tenderness that I had no time or energy to give him before. Why did he have to die before I recovered my ability to love him?
It was a catch-22 I battled with all weekend.
That Thursday evening I drove over the mountains to attend the licensing of a young preacher. I took advantage of the lonesome drive to listen to a book on tape my niece lent me. The title was “My Life in the Middle Ages.” It was supposed to be funny. Turns out the first two CDs were all about this guy’s father’s declining months. It was about death; about tying up all those messy loose ends.
Of course I bawled my way through that. When I couldn’t take it anymore—when I thought I’d better get my face in shape for the licensing ceremony—I popped in an Ingrid Michaelson CD. Quirky, upbeat Ingrid. Problem is, I’d never really listened to some of those songs before. About the fifth song on the CD is about the inevitability of death. “We are all snowmen, and we’re going to melt one day.”
The same message is being pounded into me over and over.
We’re all snowmen, and were are going to melt one day. It’s the norm. It’s not a devastating tragedy.
But the point of it? The point of living and dying and leaving others behind to bawls their eyes out?
Here I was, the daughter of a preacher, going to the licensing ceremony of a young, vibrant, new preacher, and I wasn’t getting it.
The point of living and dying, it slowly sunk in, is to pass on the baton. The best thing we can do is to spend ourselves living, then die and offer the lessons of our lives as rich mulch for the next generation.
It made me think of all the lessons I absorbed from Dad’s life. Like:
– Nature is awesome
– Don’t spend what you don’t have
– Prayer changes things
– God is gentle
– Invest in people on the fringe of society; they’re the ones who will remember you
It was a good weekend to mourn and know that there is good in all of this.
From now on, when mourning strikes, I will try to add to the list of lessons learned.
And I will think about how my life will have an impact after I—like all of us will—eventually melt.
Trying to follow Alzheimer’s research sometimes feels like walking through an Escher exhibit: the contradictions can border on the absurd.
Take the new findings on SIRT1 and its relation to Alzheimer’s. Research after research shows that SIRT1 apparently protects against Alzheimer’s:
25 July 2010. The sirtuin protein SIRT1 is emerging as an important player in learning and memory, and may have potential as a therapeutic target in Alzheimer disease. Fresh on the heels of a July 11 Nature paper that demonstrated a crucial role for SIRT1 in memory (see ARF related news story on Gao et al., 2010), two new papers add to the growing body of evidence that SIRT1 helps keep brains healthy. In a paper appearing July 21 in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers led by Valter Longo at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, show that a SIRT1 knockout mouse has numerous defects in learning and memory. This finding implies that SIRT1 could have a protective role in AD, and indeed, in a July 23 Cell paper, researchers led by Leonard Guarente at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, report that overexpression of SIRT1 can decrease Aβ production and the number of amyloid plaques in a mouse model of AD.
You’d think, then, that more SIRT1 is better for Alzheimer’s and less is worse. But:
Michán and colleagues also examined a transgenic mouse that overexpressed SIRT1 16-fold in the brain. On this normal mouse background, the authors found that this massive SIRT1 overexpression conferred no improvements in learning or memory, and that synaptic function was unchanged except for a slight increase in neuronal excitability.
And though less is worse, vitamin B3 in the form of niacinamide has been shown to “cure” Alzheimer’s in mice by decreasing the expression of SIRT1: Nicotinamide Restores Cognition in Alzheimer’s Disease Transgenic Mice via a Mechanism Involving Sirtuin Inhibition and Selective Reduction of Thr231-PhosphotauWe evaluated the efficacy of nicotinamide, a competitive inhibitor of the sirtuins or class III NAD+-dependent HDACs in 3xTg-AD mice, and found that it restored cognitive deficits associated with pathology. Nicotinamide selectively reduces a specific phospho-species of tau (Thr231) that is associated with microtubule depolymerization, in a manner similar to inhibition of SirT1. Nicotinamide also dramatically increased acetylated -tubulin, a primary substrate of SirT2, and MAP2c, both of which are linked to increased microtubule stability. .
When asked about this contradiction, Dr. Greene, one of the researchers on this paper says,
You are correct – there are contradictions between the role of Sirt1 in AD. Regardless of these, nicotinamide has good effects in the preclinical models, and has been shown to now be effective for other neurodegenerative diseases as well. Sirt1 may be beneficial at some stages of the disease, and not others – we cannot [reconcile] these differences at this stage, but our research says that nicotinamide is highly effective in preclinical models and that inhibition of Sirt1 plays a role in these effects.
My mind wants to hyperventilate with the contradictions, but then I remember the story of the three blind men describing an elephant and realize the contradiction exists only because we do not yet fully understand.
And that’s what drives research onward.
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.
If you’re like me and need a visual representation of the brain’s anatomy to understand Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s research better, here are a few good slide shows and videos for your educational pleasure:
How The Brain Works
From the Mayo Clinic. This is a good starter slide show of the brain’s main functions. In eight slides you get a basic outline of the lobes of the brain and their purposes.
Dementia Pictures Slideshow: Disorders of the Brain
From MedicineNet. These 31 slides show what happens to the brain in cortical, subcortical, progressive, primary, and secondary dementias.
From the Alzheimer’s Association. In 17 slides you will learn about the brain’s basic functions, then how the brain is affected in Alzheimer’s by amyloid beta plaques and tau tangles.
Zoom In and Search for a Cure
From Emergent Universe. This is a fun, artsy, and very interactive show depicting what happens in the brain affected by Alzheimer’s Disease. Among other things, you will discover why ab42 is more toxic than ab40.
Inside the Brain: Unraveling the Mystery of Alzheimer’s Disease
This is a video put out by several government organizations (the NIH, NIA…) showing the pathology of Alzheimer’s in the brain.
The Secret Life of the Brain
From PBS. Here are three interactive shows (requires Shockwave), including, History of the Brain, 3-D Brain Anatomy, Mind Illusions, and Scanning the Brain.
Brain Rules: Sleep
Now that findings show beta amyloid buildup is cleared during sleep, this slide show will be of special interest, as it shows the role of sleep in brain function.
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