Thursday, 13 December 2007

Ambush of the Brain

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.

3 comments:

Ben S said...
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Ben S said...

Hi Lorna
That's a really pertinent and moving comment you made. My wife works in a church setting and before that in a hospice one, and she has seen so much of this Altzheimer ambush amongst the people she has visited.
I too remember that Iris and her husband used to visit the lodge of my college in Oxford and look at the notices posted there, in her declining years, and it was tragic to see her decline, just as it is of others, and particularly those who have had fine minds and been able to share that with a public through writings and public service.
However it is important to distinguish between the onset of a real illness/attack such as Altzheimers and mini strokes and mental lethargy or burnout (what I keep assuring myself I get).
There some great resources about improving you brain as you age on the web (some of which I occasionally dabble with!), but there are two things I have found, first that each ending (a piece of writing, a task done, another step of a project achieved) can be treated as an opportunity for a new beginning. Second, when you get those senior moments you describe, you forget that person's name or what you were going to do, there's a really good and comforting reason - as you grow older your brain holds progressively more information and records or discards it; there is so much more of a databank in there (your head) for it to hunt through than there is for a 20-year-old, that it takes time to come up with the answer. And it may have been just a bit too quick for you and deleted the action list item as you set foot on the stair, out of the short term list!
A year or so ago I read one of Tony Buzan's books (err... I have forgotten the title and I can't remember where I put it... ;-)
It was really reassuring, but I chickened out at mind maps...
I do remember where I put my nice new copy of The Chase, however, and I plan a nice weekend when my wife is away to curl up with it...
Best wishes
Ben

Ben S said...
This comment has been removed by the author.