In addition to the novels I’m reading this month, I read The End of Memory: A Natural History of Aging and Alzheimer’s, by Jay Ingram. After finding a connection between writing and Alzheimer’s Disease, I decided to give this book attention in a blog post by itself.
The author, Jay Ingram, has no medical training; however, he is a science writer and was the co-host and producer of Discovery Channel Canada’s “Daily Planet” program. The book is well-documented with sources to back up his writing.
The book gives good explanations of plaques and tangles, which are the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s. It goes into more scientific detail than I wanted to process, but it appeared to give a good overview of where Alzheimer’s knowledge stood at the time of its publication in 2014.
The more I read in the book, the more I came to realize just how complicated the research is. The cause of the disease remains elusive. Do the plaques and tangles cause Alzheimer’s? Or does Alzheimer’s cause the plaques and tangles? Why do some people with numerous plaques and tangles in their brains show no signs of having Alzheimer’s?
The End of Memory: A Natural History of Aging and Alzheimer’s gives good explanations of what is known about the disease and pulls no punches when it comes to how far we probably still are from identifying its cause. In the meantime, drugs attempt to treat the symptoms.
As a writer, I was intrigued by Chapter Nine about the Nuns Study. I’m referring to the 1990s study directed by Dr. David Snowdon with 678 School Sisters of Notre Dame. As Mr. Ingram explained, “They’d have their lives measured, their minds challenged, and in the end, their brains autopsied.”
The ninth chapter of the book is about some of the study findings. The study result that grabbed my attention was that it found a correlation between the idea density in essays the nuns wrote when they were 20 to 22 years old and their incidence of dementia 60 or 70 years later.
Idea density is defined as how many ideas are expressed in every 10 words. According to the Nuns Study, as reported by Jay Ingram in The End of Memory: A Natural History of Aging and Azheimer’s, the lower the idea density in an essay written as a young adult, the higher the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s Disease 60 or 70 years later.
The biographical essays the nuns had written in their early 20s were also evaluated for grammatical complexity. Mr. Ingram wrote, “Grammatical complexity challenges working memory as you struggle either to follow someone else’s edifice of a sentence or to keep your own words under control. Each additional clause soaks up mental resources.”
Working memory generally decreases with age, of course, but no correlation was found in the Nun Study between grammatical complexity and the chance of getting Alzheimer’s. Mr. Ingram stated in the book, “Only idea density has that mysterious relationship.”
The correlation between idea density and Alzheimer’s might turn out to mean nothing. Most of us don’t have copies of essays we wrote when we were 20 years old. I’m glad I don’t. I might be embarrassed by my writing skills at that age. If my idea density was low at age 20, I don’t want to know at 64 that there is a higher probability that I’ll develop Alzheimer’s than if I’d been a better writer back then.
That is just one example of the complexities of Alzheimer’s Disease and the effort to determine cause and effect. The End of Memory: A Natural History of Aging and Alzheimer’s tells about numerous other studies and their findings. Some recent studies indicate that the “epidemic” of Alzheimer’s might be slowing. Drug and other treatment trials continue.
The book addresses the part DNA might play in the disease as well as some information about treatments. It tells about the theory from the 1970s into the 1990s that aluminum causes Alzheimer’s. Other food items have been considered for possible connections with the disease.
Mr. Ingram tells about Suzanne de la Monte of Brown University and her theory that there might be a connection between sugar and Alzheimer’s. In fact, her article in a 2012 issue of Current Alzheimer’s Research makes the case for thinking of Alzheimer’s as possibly being Type 3 Diabetes.
According to Mr. Ingram’s book, Alzheimer’s accounts for 65-75% of all dementia cases, but we need to be mindful that 25-35% of dementia cases are not connected to Alzheimer’s Disease.
I found this book to be enlightening and helpful. I am not an authority on Alzheimer’s Disease, but I was impressed with the documentation Mr. Ingram gives. It was the most thorough book about Alzheimer’s that I found at the public library from the last several years of publication.
Until my next blog post
I hope you have a good book to read. I’m reading The Deep Dark Descending, by Allen Eskens and News of the World, by Paulette Jiles.
If you’re a writer, I hope you have productive writing time.