Thursday, February 10, 2011

True story or not, Alzheimer's doesn't discriminate

The late Carl Sagan, who popularized astronomy with his public television mini-series “Cosmos,” also wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Dragons of Eden.” In this book I read an anecdote that I found fascinating; Sagan observed that a person might awaken from an exceptionally vivid dream and declare “I’ll surely remember this dream, and tell everyone about it in the morning.” The problem was that by the time morning came around, he could barely remember it at all. But if he had decided that “I better write this down, because I might forget it,” by morning the dreamer could remember the nighttime fantasy without referring to the notes he wrote down.

Funny thing about memory; it is the basis for what we call “intelligence.” Some people can memorize and recall things better than others, thus they are more “intelligent.” For some of us, memory is like a test in school; if it is a multiple choice test, we have a better chance at recalling the right answer than if it is a fill-in-the-blank test. As people get older, answers to questions they perfectly well know are harder to resurrect from their slumber; but they are there somewhere. All you need is a hint or brief brain-wracking. Twenty years ago, just to convince myself that I could, I memorized all of the lyrics to Don McLean’s seven-minute opus “American Pie.” On occasion I’ll recite the words in my head in order to persuade myself that my brain, or at least what’s left of it, hasn’t gone completely to pot. At work, I’ll make an effort to memorize the numbers on cargo carts before I write them down; sometimes I can remember all of them, but usually not.

So what is the point of this meandering discussion? Maybe some people have seen the cover of a recent edition of the American tabloid/scandal sheet called The Globe; Prince Charles, it is alleged, is suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, and this story is causing a slight stir in Britain. The reasoning behind this allegation is that the 62-year-old prince seems to be having memory loss, which apparently cannot be explained by advancing age. Other symptoms of Alzheimer’s, like disorientation, mood swings, and deterioration of language and motor skills, is not mentioned. Not surprisingly, the Palace is not commenting on the veracity of this story. The “drama” now centers around whether this disqualifies Charles from inheriting the throne, although even at 84, the queen doesn’t appear to be ready to go anywhere anytime soon.

This, of course, may just be rumor-mongering to sell a few more copies of the tabloid, although frankly I think most Americans care as much about British royal family doings of the Prince of Liechtenstein’s (although his personal wealth is $5 billion, and the fact that twice as many businesses are incorporated in the principality than citizens is explained by the fact that it has a corporation-friendly no- questions-asked environment). However, it is interesting to note, perhaps not coincidentally, that Prince Charles has displayed great interest in the topic of Alzheimer’s Disease in the past. In 2006, he visited a mental health facility, praising its use of “holistic” treatments for Alzheimer’s, claiming that such techniques had done wonders for his own health. Two years ago, he gave a speech before the Alzheimer's Research Trust conference at the Royal Institution in London, in which he proclaimed that the country faced a “catastrophic burden of dementia,” in which 700,000 Brits were at that very moment afflicted with the disease, causing a untenable weight on the already teetering British health care system. It was his wish that the “shroud of mystery” be lifted from the affliction, so that its sufferers would not be “stigmatized.” Sufferers lived in hope that an effective treatment could be found. Hmm.

As indicated before, no one except The Globe and its “sources” are making such insinuations. However, many well-known people have suffered from Alzheimer’s: writers Jonathon Swift, Immanuel Kant, and Ralph Waldo Emerson; political figures Winston Churchill, Barry Goldwater, Cyrus Vance and Ronald Reagan; civil rights figure Rosa Parks; and actors Burgess Meredith, James “Scotty” Doohan, Charles Bronson and Charlton Heston.

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