“Cure when possible…Comfort always”
I just finished a new book by Dr. Peter Whitehouse entitled The Myth of Alzheimer’s Disease: What You Aren’t Being Told About Today’s Most Dreaded Dreaded Diagnosis. While the title has a sensationalist ring to it, the book is a landmark discussion on aging, brain changes, dementia, and our new created obsession with Alzheimer’s disease.
Dr. Whitehouse is a respected neurologist who has been at the forefront of the “Alzheimer’s movement” for almost thirty years. But as the title of the book suggests, he now has deep reservations about where this work has taken us. He insists, with good cause, that we are chasing an expensive illusion that Alzheimer’s disease is a single pathology that can be checkmated with a drug or a vaccine. As important, he feels our profound fear of all aspects of “normal brain aging” has given us two unsavory byproducts:
1. It has once again made aging, the natural changes that are programmed into the human life span, a pathological event. The shame of aging has been intensified by the shame of anything less than perfect brain function. There is no middle ground. We are summoned to a war against poor brain behavior at almost any cost. It is a fear that might convince us to “pre-medicate” the normal drift of forgetting names or reduced multi-tasking as a containment strategy.
2. It has created a twenty-first century “leper syndrome” at a time when 125,000,000 adults are struggling to get through the second half of life. Once the first “mental lesion” a change in brain function is detected, the outcast process begins. A flurry of scans, exams, and lab test mark the official entry into the dementia colony.
In his book, Dr. Whitehouse is not ignoring the reality of dementia. Hardly. He has treated it for decades. But the experience has changed his mind about what treatment means. He argues that the billions we throw at research for a “cure” could be better spent in creating non-clinical support networks that offer adults with accelerated brain aging a humanistic approach to quality of life management. He also argues that a portion of these funds could be used for the most important weapon we have against dementia: lifestyle-based prevention.
I am sure this book will provoke intense debate, and I see that is a good thing. As boomers begin to fill up the ranks of “sixty something,” they need a new way to think about brain aging, one not based on abject fear or another reason to hate being old. Rather they need a compassionate vision of the give and take of aging and the opportunity it creates, amid the comfort of friends, creativity, and purpose, for a meaningful and rich life until the end.