Afflicting nearly half of all persons over the age of 85, Alzheimer's disease kills nearly 100,000 Americas a year as it insidiously robs them of their memory and wreaks havoc on the lives of their loved ones. It was once minimized and misunderstood as forgetfulness in the elderly, but Alzheimer's is now at the forefront of many medical and scientific agendas, for as the world's population ages, the disease will kill millions more and touch the lives of virtually everyone.
With grace and precision, Shenk (Data Song), a journalist and occasional NPR commentator, presents a lyric biography of Alzheimer's, "a condition specific to humans and as old as humanity." At one time, doctors thought senility, or dementia, was an inevitable fact of growing older. Now they know that Alzheimer's is a specific, formidable disease that threatens to reach epidemic proportions within the next 50 years. The disease is named for the neurologist who, in 1906, first noticed, in the brain of an autopsied patient, the telltale plaques and tangles that strangle the brain's neurons. Shenk presents a thoughtful and complex rumination on many aspects of Alzheimer's, including anecdotes about the memory loss experienced by Ronald Reagan, Ralph Waldo Emerson and E.B. White. He recounts the tales of caregivers, many of whom become clinically depressed and who, along with physicians, draw an analogy between the developing skills of a child and the decrease in cognitive ability that besets Alzheimer's patients. The author delves deeply into scientific research and explains that though there is as yet no cure, a recently developed vaccine holds great promise for the future. However, he warns, scientific inquiry could be impeded by fierce competition for research dollars. Doctors can now recognize an early stage of "probable Alzheimer's," which means that patients who are slowly sinking into its depths can understand their condition and its destructive path. Shenk movingly recounts a conversation he had with one such patient, who shares interesting ideas for rehabilitative conditioning to slow down his mental deterioration. Agent, Sloan Harris. (On-sale: Sept. 4) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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December 31, 2000
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Excerpt from The Forgetting by David Shenk
I Have Lost Myself
A healthy, mature human brain is roughly the size and shape of two adult fists, closed and pressed together at the knuckles. Weighing three pounds, it consists mainly of about a hundred billion nerve cells--neurons--linked to one another in about one hundred trillion separate pathways. It is by far the most complicated system known to exist in nature or civilization, a control center for the coordination of breathing, swallowing, pressure, pain, fear, arousal, sensory perception, muscular movement, abstract thought, identity, mood, and a varied suite of memories in a symphony that is partly predetermined and partly adaptable on the fly. The brain is so ridiculously complex, in fact, that in considering it in any depth one can only reasonably wonder why it works so well so much of the time.
Mostly, we don't think about it at all. We simply take this nearly silent, ludicrously powerful electrochemical engine for granted. We feed it, try not to smash it too hard against walls or windshields, and let it work its magic for us.
Only when it begins to fail in some way, only then are we surprised, devastated, and in awe.
On November 25, 1901, a fifty-one-year-old woman with no personal or family history of mental illness was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Frankfurt, Germany, by her husband, who could no longer ignore or hide quirks and lapses that had overtaken her in recent months. First there were unexplainable bursts of anger, and then a strange series of memory problems. She became increasingly unable to locate things in her own home and began to make surprising mistakes in the kitchen. By the time she arrived at Stadtische Irrenanstalt, the Frankfurt Hospital for the Mentally Ill and Epileptics, her condition was as severe as it was curious. The attending doctor, senior physician Alois Alzheimer, began the new file with these notes in the old German Sutterlin script.