Peter Whitehouse and Daniel George wrote a book called The Myth of Alzheimer’s. In it, they claim that “there is no such thing as Alzheimer’s Disease.” “Alzheimer’s Disease represents our culture’s attempt to make sense of the natural process of brain aging that we cannot fully control.” So, in an attempt to control it, “we’ve created an antagonist” and named it Alzheimer’s Disease.
They claim that because we don’t know the “singular cause” of Alzheimer’s, because we can’t cure it, and because we can’t differentiate Alzheimer’s from normal brain aging, we should stop diagnosing people with this “label.” Labeling someone with Alzheimer’s only causes them harm from the stigma attached to it. We should stop treating people with Alzheimer’s medications, and we should certainly stop looking for a cure. Dementia is just normal aging, and you can’t cure aging.
Wow. Where do I begin?
Let’s start with cancer. We don’t know yet what causes cancer or how to cure it. We treat it with crude, non-specific poisons that risk the very life of the person who takes them. There used to be a HUGE stigma attached to having cancer. Remember when everyone called it “the big C?” Cancer is not caused by one singular process. It is caused by a complex interaction between genetic and environmental influences. Should we not call cancer a disease? Of course not. Do we not tell someone they have cancer because of the stigma that might be placed on them? Of course not. Do my chances of developing cancer increase as I age? Yes, they do. Is cancer a normal part of normal aging? No, it is not.
Likewise, we can think about heart disease. Do most people develop accumulations of plaque in their arteries as they get older? Yes, they do. If untreated, will most people develop cardiovascular disease if they live long enough? Yes, they will. So is having cardiovascular disease a normal part of normal aging? No. Over the course of 50-100 years, we, as human beings who eat fatty foods and don’t exercise enough, develop plaques that clog our blood vessels. This leads to decreased blood flow to the heart which leads to oxygen deprivation of the heart muscle which causes a heart attack. Do we just accept this as normal aging and do nothing about it? No, we do not. We diet and exercise. We go to the doctor and get tested to see how much plaque we might have blocking our arteries. And we take medications, like statins, to decrease the buildup of these plaques, decreasing our chances of getting a heart attack.
Proclaiming that Alzheimer’s is not a disease and that dementia is due to normal aging is simply wrong and irresponsible.
Genetic mutations in the genes for presenilin-1, presenilin-2, and amyloid precursor protein CAUSE Alzheimer’s Disease 100% of the time. Malfunctions caused by mutations in these proteins result in a buildup of amyloid beta 42, causing clogs in neural synapses, causing dementia. This process causes disease. A malfunctioning presenilin-1, presenilin-2, or amyloid precursor protein is not a normal part of normal aging.
Normal aging is forgetting someone’s name. Alzheimer’s is forgetting your spouse’s name.
Yes, diagnosis is tricky today. We are still developing the tools sensitive enough to measure what needs to be measured to detect Alzheimer’s Disease. An MRI is not sensitive enough. A blood test won’t reveal it. Plaques (are you looking at diffuse or neuritic?) and tangles are not accurate correlates. Pencil and paper tests are only so telling. Again, think about cancer. Diagnosing cancer can include tests and scans that have false positives and false negatives. It can involve invasive surgeries to rule it in or out, to determine if the mass is benign or malignant. The diagnostic process may be imperfect, but we use every piece of information we have available today. Just because diagnosing Alzheimer’s today is difficult, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t a disease there to diagnose!
And we should diagnose Alzheimer’s if it’s there. Why? Because we can treat it with Aricept and Namenda. Because we can exercise, eat a Mediterranean diet, meditate, and stay mentally active. Convincing people that Alzheimer’s is not a disease and should not be diagnosed will needlessly keep people who are suffering with dementia away from doctors, away from Aricept and Namenda, away from planning responsibly for their future. In denial. Not to mention frustrated and scared.
Maybe, in the future, we will be able to treat this disease without saying the words “You have Alzheimer’s Disease.” My grandfather died in 1978 of heart failure at the age of 69. My father had high cholesterol in his fifties and went on a statin. He walks several miles a day. He is now 67, and his cholesterol levels are low. He has never had a chest pain. He was never told that he had heart disease. He was at risk. I hope he outlives my grandfather by a couple of decades.
Maybe, in the future, the treatment of Alzheimer’s will look more like this, more preventative. Family history, an amyloid-specific scan, and some neuropsychological testing show you’re at risk for developing Alzheimer’s, so you go on medication and stave off symptoms to maintain quality of life for as long as possible.
Growing old without Alzheimer’s.
But we have to bust Whitehouse and George’s myth and acknowledge first that Alzheimer’s is a disease.
Lisa Genova, Ph.D., author of STILL ALICE, www.StillAlice.com