A couple days ago we had a March Babies birthday party here at the house. It’s a tradition my sister started a few years ago because so many of her friends have birthdays in March, and this is a great way to kill a bunch of birds with one shotgun. As I was sitting listening […]
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 […]
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 […]
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 […]
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 […]
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 symptoms become evident, so you have to look for signs early on.”
So I want to know: are we to be concerned about Alzheimer’s as soon as we lose our keys for the first time, or should we just laugh it off and look at the bright side of life all through the aging process?
Recently, a new mini-test was developed for the easy detection of Alzheimer’s. It’s called the AD8. This 8-question test is supposed to bring a diagnostic tool into the hands of primary care doctors so that Alzheimer’s can be detected earlier and therefore treated more effectively.
The problem is, there is no effective treatment for Alzheimer’s yet. So what, pray tell, are we doing finding new ways to diagnose this disease when there is no treatment and when the disease itself is not even clearly defined?
When we first brought Dad to live with us, we set him up with a primary care doctor who ran him through the standard Alzheimer’s test: remember these three things; tell me the date; where do you live; what floor are you on; draw a clock that says three thirty; etc. Dad got every single question wrong, and the doctor proclaimed, “You don’t have Alzheimer’s.”
I wanted to laugh. I think it was relief that a doctor would buck the system and refrain from offering perhaps a true but useless diagnosis given the lack of any effective treatment.
Later, we took Dad to a neurologist who got through three of the standard questions and suggested he try Aricept.
We gave Dad the five-week trial supply. It profited him nothing.
I’m not saying that we should refrain from diagnosing diseases. From his neurologist Dad also got a diagnosis of Parkinson’s, and as I’ve pointed out in an earlier post, this diagnosis (though it came late in the progression of the disease) was tremendously helpful in understanding Dad’s behavior and in relieving his sense of guilt. The medication he took for Parkinson’s did him no good either, but the diagnosis itself was helpful—perhaps as much for us, his caregivers, as for him.
But Alzheimer’s is a tricky beast. There are some well-known Alzheimer’s victims like Richard Taylor and Dottie (of the Alzheimer’s Reading Room fame) who are now under fire as possible Alzheimer’s mis-diagnoses. How can anyone have Alzheimer’s for six or ten years and show no decline, or even show improvement over time? It is not the subject’s truthfulness that is questioned but the accuracy of the initial diagnosis (heaven forbid we should think Alzheimer’s can be stayed by sheer willpower—of the sufferer and/or caregiver. That would mean we don’t really need expensive meds).
Is diagnosis of value when there are so many causes of dementia that could result in a false positive? And are the statistics of any value when they are repeatedly misquoted? We keep using the phrase “there are 5.3 million Americans with Alzheimer’s” when the correct statistic is “5.3 million Americans with Alzheimer’s and other dementias“.
One last bit of datum against the usefulness of Alzheimer’s diagnoses: in the U.S., whites tend to get diagnosed and treated more frequently than Hispanics, African Americans, and Asians. Whites seek out professional medical care, while Latinos, African Americans and Asians with Alzheimer’s tend to stay home and be cared for by family. Yet whites with Alzheimer’s die sooner than their non-white counterparts.
If earlier diagnosis is helpful, where is the evidence?
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?
Definitely my pick for the most practical gift you can give yourself or a loved one suffering from Alzheimer’s.
What’s your pick?
This weekend I picked up and devoured Dr. Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat—a fascinating collection of clinical tales of neurological aberrations accompanied by philosophical and social observations regarding the people affected by these aberrations.
One of the first things that hit me as I read these tales was remorse over my inadequate caregiving of Dad in the past three years. I mean, the very first case in the book reminded me very much of Dad—his inability to tell the difference between his foot and his shoe; to interpret a picture or the furniture layout of any room; to distinguish between his body and a chair across the room. But whereas Dr. Sacks’ response to these aberrations was fascination, interest, and kindness, mine was a struggle against exasperation, irritability, and impatience.
Why couldn’t I marvel at (instead shake my head at) Dad’s description of his back pain as an imaginary horizontal tube about a foot in front of his abdomen? Why did I only nod in shame when doctors asked, “Is your father’s mentation… always… this… shot?” instead of pushing the observation beyond the superficial to the interesting? If I’d only read this book or studied neurology before taking care of Dad! I feel like a parent looking back on her inadequate parenting skills and feeling remorse over the damage it may have caused.
Dr. Sacks laments the tendency of neurology to focus on “deficits,” leaving the soul out of the doctor’s concern. This echoed my own feelings expressed in the post Regarding Disabilities and Questionnaires. We are so concerned in medicine and social services to define what’s wrong with the patient that we miss seeing the desperate starvation in front of our eyes: the individual’s need for affirmation—for having someone notice what’s right with them. Thus, the simplest of all medicines or disability benefits is left completely out of the picture in professional delineation of care: making use of what’s left of the damaged self to make positive human connections.
From his chapter, “The President’s Speech,” I learned one way to use what’s left of Mom’s mind to connect more effectively with her. Like the patients in the aphasiac ward, Mom too has lost all language while retaining extraordinary function in the area of intonation, body language, inflection, and facial expression. I’ve always sensed that she could “read our body language.” Dr. Sacks’ confirmation of this ability has made me more aware of how I use those meta-verbal cues in communicating with Mom. The smile I get in response is more valuable than any drug-induced ability to tell what date it is.
One of the most fascinating passages in Dr. Sack’s book tells of a man with Tourett’s who, when given Haldol in the smallest of doses, ceased to exhibit the excesses of Tourett’s and became disastrously dulled—both physically and mentally—causing him as much distress as had his Tourett’s dysfunction. It took three months of counseling and “preparation for healing” before the man was again willing to try a tiny dose of Haldol. As Dr. Sacks put it, “The effects of Haldol here were miraculous—but only became so when a miracle was allowed.” Scandalous! Was Dr. Sacks milking the placebo effect for all its worth? I’ve always wondered why doctors don’t deliberately incorporate the placebo effect into the real medication to multiply its effect. Now I know: some do (what’s wrong with spending three months preparing a patient for healing?).
It’s easy to see why Dr. Sacks is considered an exentric. His methods go beyond the cut and dry. They touch the soul. I think I like this.
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.
When dealing with Parkinson’s, sometimes one symptom can dictate behavior and end up causing a cascade of physical problems.
Symptom and consequence in point: hand tremors can lead to decreased liquid consumption (because the Parkinson’s patient is embarrassed to spill every time he drinks), and decreased liquid consumption can exacerbate constipation and possibly lead to impacted bowels in a Parkinson’s victim.
In dealing with Dad, we found that one solution to this cascading problem is a spill-proof sipping container. Dad used to spill everything on himself, the table, the floor. Now when his shaking is bad, we put all liquids in the spill-proof water bottle, and he is no longer embarrassed to drink.
The nice thing about the Camelbak water bottle is it’s sleek, sporty design which makes Dad feel like he fits in more with our physically active family.
So if you are having a hard time coming up with a Father’s Day gift for your Parkinson’s dad, this is my suggestion.
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.
Mom has been pretty much without language for five years now. Three years ago she would occasionally call out “Ken!” (Dad’s name) once or twice a week, but other than that, her speech was a non-stop running chatter of “geri geri geri fica fica fica mao mao” and the like. Mostly two syllable experiments in sound. Ah. Also, occasionally–and as far back as 2 1/2 years ago, she would respond to the declaration “I love you” with “too too too too.” We wrapped ourselves in that response–a definite sign of comprehension and reciprocity.
Today we don’t even get the “too too too.” But we do get eye contact and a nod, which is just as good as sign of comprehension.
For all the times I’ve felt a thrill at the connection still possible with Mom via language, I didn’t have a picture of how thrilling it was for her to know that she knew something until one day–about 18 months ago–when I took her to the bathroom. We’d been having a very hard time getting Mom to urinate. She’d hold it for eight, twelve, eighteen hours. We massaged her, waited in the bathroom with her, gave her tons of liquid in hopes of getting her to release the contents of her bladder–to no avail.
One day I sat her down and begged her to go. “Mom, go potty. Let it out. Just let it out, ok?” She leaned over and made a shooing motion with her hand and repeated, “out?” I said, “yes, let it out.” She looked at the door, repeated the shooing motion (toward the door) and said “out” with the most excitement I’d seen from her in a long time. She was ecstatic at the small bit of comprehension she possessed at that moment. She knew the word “out!” She knew the word–it’s meaning–and it gave her significance.
I suppose it was akin to the feeling Helen Keller had at the comprehension of the word “water.” It opened up the world around her; gave her instant availability to connection with other human beings; empowered her to have a “self.”
I ache for Mom and her loss of language and all that has gone with it. But thanks to her, I am richer now that I know the power I possess with a vocabulary. Comprehension via language is such a huge gift (sorry to disagree, post-modernists)!
Now, if I can just stall the loss I already feel creeping in…
A curious thing happened to me on my way to finding the cure for Alzheimer’s all on my own: I gained more respect for drug research companies, for neurologists, for folks who are obsessed with theories and practically live in their labs trying to prove their theories. More specifically, I gained greater respect for drug companies that fail colossally, then dust themselves off and try again.
After Eli Lilly revealed that their latest trials of the Alzheimer’s drug semagacestat resulted in greater dementia in their subjects, the response from the public was overwhelmingly angry. Adding to Lilly’s revelation, a recent report on Alzheimer’s drug company stocks by NeuroInvestment painted a bleak picture of the effectiveness of Alzheimer’s drug development across the board, giving the impression that research in the field is pretty much a crap shoot.
If you follow the very well-attended Alzheimer’s Reading Room online, you will see an interesting reaction to these reports. Richard Taylor (who suffers from Alzheimer’s) is one of many who feel crushed and devalued by the repeated failures of Alzheimer’s drug trials. Imagine trying to live with hope, then seeing over and over again that no matter how much money and time is spent on Alzheimer’s research, reality refuses to sustain any hope.
No matter the good intentions, Alzheimer’s research seems a recipe for failure.
This week I got a wee taste of what things might look like from the inside of these drug companies. For the past few years, I’ve been building a theory of Alzheimer’s of my own and keeping my eyes peeled for evidence that would support my suspicions. More recently, I decided to take a serious look at my hunch and see if a) I could gather legitimate scientific data that would shed light on my “theory,” and, b) see if this data had any kind of flow to it—if it had a “storyboard.”
My motives were twofold: I like to discover truths; and I very much want to avoid getting Alzheimer’s (like my mother). Curiosity and Fear fed my research. When I finally thought I had an airtight storyboard, excitement at the implications led to action: I shot off my “storyboard” to a leading researcher in the field.
Sobriety set in the next day. I took another look at what I’d written, then re-checked my sources and found not just one, but several really weak extrapolations in my thinking, and one particularly week substantiation of the evidence. I should have waited. I should have spent another eight weeks (I know, right?) researching before putting it out there and risking embarrassment.
But think about it: the possibility of being right on something so devastatingly urgent will make people take risks. And I’m not talking only about the drug companies; people signing up for drug trials are equally taking risks, knowing that the outcome is not certain at all. When you consider that it takes years and years and years to move inches in the direction of a safe and effective drug release (such as the six years it took to find how a fine-tuned alternate to semagacestat About a decade ago, Dr. Greengard and his postdocoral students made their first discovery on the path to finding the new protein. They got a hint that certain types of pharmaceuticals might block beta amyloid. So they did an extensive screen of pharmaceuticals that met their criteria and found that one of them, Gleevec, worked. It completely stopped beta amyloid production. That was exciting, until Dr. Greengard discovered that Gleevec was pumped out of the brain. Still, he found that if he infused Gleevec directly into the brains of mice with Alzheimer’s genes, beta amyloid went away. ‘We spent the next six years or so trying to figure out how Gleevec worked’ on gamma secretase, Dr. Greengard said. He knew, though, that he was on to something important.functioned in mice), the urgency for a cure leads all sides to gamble on a shortcut. And we’re not interested in companies that aim to keep the Alzheimer’s victim home “three months longer.” We want a cure.
Colossal goals risk colossal failures.
Can you just imagine what went through the minds and guts of Lilly’s leaders when they realized they’d failed? When they had to go out there and tell their shareholders of their failure?
“Well, there’s good news, and there’s bad news. The good news is that our drug was more effective than the placebo…”
Of course drug companies are going to be motivated by the excitement of financial gain. But they’re also going to be motivated by the fear of getting it wrong. They know what failure can do to their reputations and their ability to fund further research.
Today, Indystar.com published a very thoughtful article on Eli Lilly’s semagacestat trial failure. You won’t have to wonder what it was like behind the scenes at Eli Lilly—the article gives you a pretty well-rounded look. You also won’t have to wonder what someone’s response would be after being given the drug and having it backfire. From the wife of one participant:
“I just hope the researchers dig their heels in and keep trying to find a cure,” Dianne said. “That’s the important thing.”
I know there’s the whole layer of marketing that plants diseases into people’s conciousness so drug companies can make money off their fears. For this there is a solution: TiVo (and the advice of a good doctor).
But we shouldn’t assume that everyone researching Alzheimer’s has only one goal in mind—to get into our pockets with random, pointless medications. Any rational company would avoid this particular field: the risk of failure is pretty much guaranteed.
I hope we can learn from Eli Lilly and other Alzheimer’s research companies to risk failure; to work even harder; to join forces in finding a cure.
This past week has been a little brutal on my ego. My fictitious self (the me I hold in high regard) has seen its reflection in various external realities and has taken a mortal blow.
At least I hope it has.
You see, I’ve had to acknowledge all in one breath that I’m not as clever as I thought I was; I’m not all that kind or thoughtful of others; my conversation skills have dulled; and my hair isn’t really red (all this self-revelation is partly due to reading Crazy Love—a book that spoons out truth about the self in a cod-liver-oil kind of way: nasty; painful; healing).
I’ve been thinking a lot about my hair in particular, perhaps as a metaphor for all the other traits I have to face up to in myself. My hair—which appears rich and red and full to others—is actually flimsy and almost entirely white. If you look close enough and run your fingers through the root system, the truth is quite apparent: I’m somewhere between grizzly gray and snow white. And as metaphor, I’m thinking it’s time to go white once and for all. It’s time to stop covering up the truth.
Just one thing holds me back: the stigma of white. No, not that elegant, brilliant white, but the mousy salt-and-pepper white. It’s terrifyingly old. I know the difference it would make at the supermarket, at the realtor’s office, at a job interview. I’m young; I should not have to place myself in the old category just yet. Lushious red gives you youth and authority. Mousy gray, and it’s an uphill battle to convince others you can still think. It’s ridiculous that pigment can make the world go ’round, but there you have it.
I know you’re wondering why I’m talking about hair in a blog about dementia, but you’ve probably sensed the connection. Aging has enormous stigma in our culture, and everything in us resists revealing anything that might indicate we are aging. Particularly for those of us who are aging prematurely.
My struggle with hair has atuned me to the struggle in the early-onset Alzheimer’s community. I follow a group on Facebook called Memory People comprised of people of all ages who have been diagnosed with some kind of dementia, their caregivers, and other supporting cast. Some members are open about their dignoses and are brave enough to face public scrutiny; others accept their diagnoses but keep it somewhat private; and still others straddle the cover-up fence: should they reveal something that isn’t fully blown yet but could have as devastating results as if it was? All of them long to live truthfully, but all also know the stigma of dementia and the costs incurred in making their mental status known. As with pigment, we are valued for our synaptic connections. Why would anyone want to expose their deficits and risk rejection?
It makes my stomach turn. What kind of society have we become? When are we going to change the way we value each other? When are we going to free ourselves from the layers of untruth that we spend a lifetime building up? When are we going to trade all our lies in for Truth and finally be set free?
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 her mother, Mary Durant, and the biography chapters relate the story of her mother prior to Alzheimer’s (think Dorothy Parker with abundant sex and alcohol) ending with a very rare love story between Mary Durant and Michael Harwood (her third husband). Having the story weave through these two windows makes the reader feel the compounded tragedy of the beast called Alzheimer’s.
You will laugh, clench, oggle, envy, and cry as you read this literary gem.
As a bonus, Cooney includes a previously unpublished short story written by her mother (in a style I would call Flannery O’Connor cum wicked smirk).
Buy it. Read it. Pass it on.
P.S. People who read this book will probably also buy and read Mary Durant and Michael Harwood’s On the Road with John James Audubon. Mine is already in the mail.
Funny how that commercial for Pristiq antidepressant gets it wrong. The last thing in the world we Alzheimer's victims (on both ends) need is a big old hand winding us up even more! Yikes! A better image would be seeing that key spin in the opposite direction, letting that purple-clad lady relax completely. Now there’s a pill I'd buy!
It’s ads like that that take me back to Princess Bride and Wesley’s pronouncement: "Life is pain, highness! Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something." A lot of people have to put up with a lot of pain. It's not just us.
So perspective helps some.
Here are some other things that help:
Yesterday a social worker came to the house to evaluate Dad for possible in-home care assistance. It was a thoroughly humiliating experience for Dad.
The list of questions issued were designed to find out exactly what Dad can and cannot do for himself. The fact that Dad can’t do much at all for himself is something we try not to throw in his face even as it happens. Every time Dad can’t sit in the chair correctly and a struggle ensues to find the right verbal or physical cue to help him do so, Dad’s self-esteem takes a dive. Every time he can’t find a certain room in the house… can’t tell time… etc. So when a list of questions comes along and lays out each and every one of his deficiencies in one sitting, piling them up in front of him like so much garbage to be hauled around, well, it would be an understatement to say it was humiliating.
The further we got into the questionnaire, the more Dad’s countenance fell. It got to the point that I let Dad tell the social worker that he had no problem doing x or y or z, even though I knew the truth.
We ended up somewhere between the truth and Dad’s dignity, honoring neither.
At the very end, this wise social worker asked a question that was clearly not on the list. She asked, “Do you like to fish?”
You could see the dark cloud lift from over Dad’s beaten-down self! A tiny bit of affirmation in the midst of all that pummeling! Never mind that Dad can’t do it anymore; the question at least allowed him the pleasure of showing a positive side of himself. For once, he got to answer a very truthful “yes!”
And that made me wonder: why can’t we–in the pursuit of scientific correctness–remember the spirit of a man? Why can’t we sprinkle questionnaires with bits of affirmation for the sake of dignity alone? Would it hurt science or government to ask “what’s one of your favorite books?” to a woman applying for food stamps? Or “what superpowers would you most like to have?” to a veteran seeking disability assistance? Shoot, while I’m at it, can we change the the category from “seniors and people with disabilties” to “seniors and people with abilities”? There are always things we can still do; things we still like; things we still dream about.
Just stuff I wonder.
And you? Do you have any beef with questionnaires?
We are continually hearing that Medicare is going to go bankrupt by mid-century thanks to the skyrocketing costs of an aging population in need of prescription drugs and dementia care.
Medicare Part D costs to the government in 2010 were $62 billion and are projected to climb to $150 billion by 2019. And Medicare costs for Alzheimer’s care will increase more than 600 percent, from $88 billion today to $627 billion in 2050.
Here is a double-barreled solution to the costs of Medicare Part D and Alzheimer’s care: replace prescription drugs with equally effective placebos and employ mildly-cognitively-impaired individuals as healthcare enhancement agents.
This is not a joke. Here is why this would work and save the federal government billions:
Placebos—if delivered properly—could potentially be more effective and considerably less costly than many current prescription drugs.
Here is an example of an experiment with placebos for a “purely physical ailment”:
One group was simply put on a waiting list; researchers know that some patients get better just because they sign up for a trial. Another group received placebo treatment from a clinician who declined to engage in small talk. Volunteers in the third group got the same sham treatment from a clinician who asked them questions about symptoms, outlined the causes of [their ailment], and displayed optimism about their condition.
Not surprisingly, the health of those in the third group improved most. In fact, just by participating in the trial, volunteers in this high-interaction group got as much relief as did people taking the two leading prescription drugs for IBS. And the benefits of their bogus treatment persisted for weeks afterward, contrary to the belief—widespread in the pharmaceutical industry—that the placebo response is short-lived.
It has been found that placebos can sometimes work even better than the leading prescription drug for any given disease, with certain factors contributing to their effectiveness:
Yellow pills make the most effective antidepressants, like little doses of pharmaceutical sunshine. Red pills can give you a more stimulating kick. Wake up, Neo. The color green reduces anxiety, adding more chill to the pill. White tablets—particularly those labeled “antacid”—are superior for soothing ulcers, even when they contain nothing but lactose. More is better, scientists say. Placebos taken four times a day deliver greater relief than those taken twice daily. Branding matters. Placebos stamped or packaged with widely recognized trademarks are more effective than “generic” placebos. Clever names can add a placebo boost to the physiological punch in real drugs. Viagra implies both vitality and an unstoppable Niagara of sexy.
If you’re thinking that the suggestion of using placebos is unethical, check out this study:
“Not only did we make it absolutely clear that these pills had no active ingredient and were made from inert substances, but we actually had ‘placebo’ printed on the bottle,” says Kaptchuk. “We told the patients that they didn’t have to even believe in the placebo effect. Just take the pills.”
The participants were monitored for three weeks and, at the end of the trial, 59% of the patients given the placebo reported ample symptom improvement as compared to 35% of the control group. Furthermore, participants who took the placebo had rates of improvement about equal to the effects of the most powerful IBS drugs.
Deception is unethical. Honesty is not. If there is a joke it’s in the current medical practice of prescribing expensive drugs that are sold without the most important ingredient that made them effective in the trials—the same ingredient that makes placebos effective.
As we would all imagine, the most important factor in the effectiveness of placebos is the doctor’s bedside manner. That is, the presence of compassion in the treatment of an ailment.
Regarding a Cognitively Impaired Workforce
The double-barreled solution in employing people with mild dementia as healthcare enhancement agents is that we would save on prescription drugs, hospital recovery times, and also be assigning purpose to people with mild cognitive impairment. Folks whose initial downward slope in the aging process is a bit early are not an “unproductive force in the economy.” There is richness of intellect, creativity, and compassion that could be tapped rather than stomped on per our current dementia stigmatization.
There was a time when people with physical disabilities couldn’t get jobs. But we’ve come a long way in learning of the tremendous contribution that the disabled can give, and have accommodated the workplace for such individuals with ramps and wider doorways and elevators in order to reap this benefit. Why not do the same for MCI individuals? Why are we instead discarding this tremendous resource?
In reading blogs of people with early-onset Alzheimer’s, one of the biggest stresses for both the sufferer and the government is issuance of social security disability benefits. Why not offer employment rather than cash benefits? If compassion at the bedside of a sick person dramatically speeds the healing process, think of the savings accrued by employing love & joy-givers in hospitals, clinics, nursing homes?
In his book The Gift of Pain, Dr. Brand lists the factors that enhance pain and prolong the healing process: fear, anger, guilt, loneliness, boredom, helplessness. He then describes how perfectly suited many institutions are in promoting these feelings with their sterile settings, uncommunicative doctors and nurses, boring surroundings (and now that nurses spend all their time at computer terminals per our new streamlining guidelines, these factors are further compounded). Healthcare institutions could cut their costs by employing people to:
Design and paint interesting scenes on hospital ceilings
Play instruments in institutional corridors (not just harps, please!)
Make dolls for nursing home patients
Read aloud to patients, or simply visit
Reupholster institutional furniture with fun fabrics
Take certified dogs into institutions for cheery visits
The savings in dollars would be compounded all around, and the savings in dignity for all healthcare users a welcome change for our society.
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