Although I've never read any of his books, I was desperately sad to read today that Terry Pratchett has early-onset Alzheimer's, perhaps as the result of a mini-stroke some years back. This is one of those Diseases to Be Terrified Of and like so many other ailments (and hey, the Big Sleep itself), it strikes out of the blue and strikes unfairly. I'm sure every one of us, when we've gone upstairs to fetch something and have forgotten what it was by the time we get there, when we can't retrieve from our memory-bank the name of a friend or an ordinary everyday object, when we can't remember what we did two days ago, and when we can't remember the name of a major character in a book we've written (this happened to me a few days ago - Jeez!) - we all, at these 'senior' moments, wonder whether that stealthy erosion of personality and identity is setting in. When you are no longer a repository of your own memories, when you are not the accumulation of self built up over a lifetime, when you cannot pass recollection and experience on to others, when you no longer have bonds with your loved ones - well, you have to ask, where does life end and death begin?
I speak with a particular fear: I have a very dear aunt in the advanced stages of Alzheimer's, now in a care home in northern Scotland. We are losing her and losing all that she knew and it causes us all enormous pain and sadness. And selfishly, we all worry about the possible genetic timebomb within us.
Before we all got healthy enough to live long enough to die of these wretched things, nature a few centuries ago would have done its Malthusian duty and seen us off with plague, scarlet fever and so on. There's a cheerful thought for the festive season! And what about all the advice to keep the brain ticking over by being mentally active? What about Mr Pratchett? What about Iris Murdoch? It's a bleedin' lottery - that's all it ever is.
Can I recommend, on the subject of Alzheimer's, a wonderful book by David Schenk, called 'The Forgetting'? It's informative, sensitive, extremely moving, linking personal experience to the medical facts and examples of the famous who succumbed to the sneaky ambush of it - including Ralph Waldo Emerson - there are some wonderful quotations drawn from his writing.