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 […]
Well, if this isn’t the best gift to buy for someone with early stages Alzheimer’s, I don’t know what is! Probably the one symptom that scares Alzheimer’s victims the most–and turns them into instant hermits–is geographic memory loss. Going out for a walk or a drive and suddenly not knowing where you are or how […]
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 […]
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.
Yesterday I finished reading Still Alice. I think the title is meant to be a loaded question. Can I, after losing all memory of others and self, still be considered to be myself? Am I still “me” if I don’t have a clue what that me is or was?
The fictional book answers the question affirmatively.
I found myself examining my perceptions of Mom–who obviously no longer knows herself–and thinking the conclusion was absolutely true. I still recognize Mom in this shell of a person. She still has the same mannerisms, exudes the same kind affection, displays the same funny reactions. She’s still Mom down to the core.
But not so much with Dad–a victim of Parkinson’s. It seems I recognize him less and less. But then, I suppose I’m holding a higher standard of “self” to Dad, giving that I’m assuming he’s more “there” than mom. If I were to strip him down to mannerisms alone, I would probably find him to be his old self too. It’s a tricky question.
At the very end of the novel, Alice has a moment of lucidy and says, “I miss myself.”
That statement struck me to the core. You know why? Because I miss being me too! There is this incredible longing inside me to be “more” or “better” or “fuller” or something. I fall way short of the me I want to be, and I long for (or miss) that. Yet I still want to be treated as though I were fully “me” even though I don’t meet my own standard for myself.
Why not, then, treat the Alzheimer’s victim as though they were fully themselves, regardless of how short they fall from the perfect version of that self?
Ultimately, our longing is for acceptance, love, safety. Let’s just make a pact to offer it unconditionally to each other regardless of where we are on this journey toward the perfect self.
Alzheimer’s and the Ego: the Power of No
On Saturday, August 21, 2010, God took Dad home. God did not wait until we were ready for this. He waited until Heaven couldn’t stand Dad’s absence any longer.
I’m posting this video about how we deal with death in our current culture because I think our attitude of denial in the face of death needs to change. Considering my family’s immediate reaction of trying to revive Dad–even though he requested a DNR–I’m speaking from experience. Our natural tendency is to hold on as long as possible. But this isn’t necessarily the best for those we love.
Letting go is so stinking hard!!
All the more reason to think and plan ahead for the death of those you love.
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.
So I re-listened to the Fresh Air segment today, then did some quick digging through articles I’ve seen online on the brain, stirred it all around, let it simmer some more, and here is the reduction I got.
Maybe our addiction to the pursuit of happiness is contributing to brain aging. It’s not an umbrella cause, of course. You would never have been able to say that Mom led a hedonistic lifestyle. And Ronald Reagan pursued a lot more things than happiness. But still… The connection between what Dr. Linden was saying and what I’ve read makes me suspicious.
In David Linden’s Compass of Pleasure, he talks about the pleasure area of the brain as being that part that–in response to certain activities or substances–produces dopamine. Dopamine is the “feel good” neurotransmitter in the brain. It is activated when we engage in certain activities or thought processes, but it is also activated when we injest/inject food, alcohol, narcotics.
Some things that produce dopamine are completely healthy. Like a good run, the enjoyment of friends, reading a stimulating book.
Some things are borderline good. Like food. Everybody needs it. The pleasure of good food produces dopamine. But when pleasure is sought after for pleasure’s sake, “the brain’s dopaminergic circuitry gets blunted. In all cases of producing pleasure in the brain, it takes increasing levels [of a thing] to produce the same level of pleasure” (quoting Dr. L). So with food, you eventually get overweightness if the pleasure of food is pursued beyond the body’s need for it. Obesity is contributing to an epidemic of Diabetes, which is strongly linked to brain aging. By indirect means, then, the pursuit of a happy palate can lead to brain aging.
Then there are things that produce dopamine (or cause its production) that are not healthy. Like alcohol, nicotine, cocaine. This falls in with the acetaldehyde hypothesis I wrote about in Does Alzheimer’s Take Guts. Alcohol, cocaine, and especially cigarette smoke have–at some point in their metabolic breakdown–the toxic aldehyde acetaldehyde. Very destructive to the brain. Dopamine is produced as the end-process of breaking down harmful aldehydes into harmless acids. It’s the brain’s “Yahoo!” after saving the day from the bad guys. That “Yahoo!” may be a good thing, but again, in order to get it a second, third, and nth time, you have to increase the attack on the body. [Interestingly, Disulfiram‘s use to treat alcohol and cocaine addiction works by inhibiting ALDH2 (aldehyde dehydrogenase) which is the enzyme that metabolizes acetaldehyde. It lets the toxin do its full work rather than disabling it by metabolizing it into a harmless acid. So the brain does not get its “yahoo!” And if you get no yahoo, you don’t repeat the action.]
The problem with focusing on happiness above all else is that we may end up using the short-cut and more harmful methods of getting that dopamine high.
Dr. Linden’s solution? “Try to take your pleasures broadly: exercise, meditate, learn, have moderate consumption of alcohol, moderate consumption of food.”
I would add: pursue friendships, do charitable work, tend a garden, read a good book (get more ideas at Changing Aging).
As Captain Kirk once said, “There are a million things you can have and a million things you can’t have. Choose the million you can.”
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?
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
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…
I took Dad for a walk tonight. It wasn’t a long walk. Dad was tired and didn’t really want to go. But he acquiesced to my prompting, and we walked to the end of the 50-yard driveway.
The whole time we walked, I supported Dad’s right arm. And the whole time we walked, Dad’s arm shook violently. By the time we got back, my arm was buzzed and aching.
Then it occurred to me that if Dad’s energy gets passed onto me in this bad way, perhaps we could harvest the energy in a good way. I suggested to him that we design something like the soccer ball recently invented by those Harvard girls—you know, the ball that stores the energy of a game’s worth of kicking into a battery that can then be used to light up the Third World.
But hey, why not harvest the energy generated by Parkinson’s tremors? Maybe we could even wire the energy back into the brain for deep brain stimulation therapy.
There’s got to be an up side to the down side of this energy-depleting disease!
Definitely my pick for the most practical gift you can give yourself or a loved one suffering from Alzheimer’s.
What’s your pick?
- 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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