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Dementia – adventures on the road to Strawberry Fields

February 21, 2016


One of the worries that besets us in this Age of Universal Fear (see my last post) is of dementia in old age.

As a reasonably healthy guy in his sixties, I don’t think of myself as old, even if others might. But obviously I’m moving swiftly in that direction, and I do find myself becoming increasingly cynical about all the health advice that seems to bombard the elderly on a daily basis. Warding off dementia is probably the most popular subject.

Two recent recommendations circulating around the media are that if you’re getting on a bit you should have plenty of sex, and, if your hearing is on the wane, that you should make sure you get hearing aids.

Both bits of advice actually make sense. Sex is a good form of exercise. At the very least it gives the cardiovascular system a good workout. As for hearing aids, if you can’t hear properly, you might progressively switch off from whatever’s going on around you, which can’t be good for your brain. It too needs the exercise.

All fine in principle, but do the two strategies work in tandem? Hearing loss shouldn’t cramp your style in bed. However, you should probably pay sufficient attention to your partner to ensure that he or she isn’t suffocating under your weight, in the throes of some orthopaedic crisis, or suffering a heart attack or stroke. These things tend to happen more frequently among the elderly, so being able to pick up audible cues of distress could be a lifesaver. Besides, hearing aids would probably be useful if you’re called to action at an inappropriate time and you want to continue listening to the Archers or Guns’n’Roses on the radio.

Actually, if you’re a dedicated multitasker, you would probably benefit from one of those hearing aids that stream audio feeds from radio and TV direct to the device via WiFi. You might find it pretty neat if you could discreetly listen to the SuperBowl while you’re, shall we say, engaged in more important matters. Who knows, perhaps listening to a six-nations rugby match while tripping the light fandango might inspire you to greater feats of athleticism. Or kill one of you in the process, of course.

Another media report suggests that you will live longer if you join a club. By which they probably mean bridge, bowls or flower arranging. No doubt that too would keep dementia at bay, unless of course it’s a club for dementia patients, in which case you basically decline together.

But I’m sure this too is generally good advice. In fact many of the guys I play golf with are pretty ancient, but nonetheless full of vim and vigour. If you offered them the chance to join any club they fancied, you might well find them lining up outside the nearest pole-dancing establishment.

So what else should you be doing to ward off dementia? The UK’s Daily Mail newspaper has ten tips, though considering most readers of that paper are demented already, I’m not sure how reliable the advice might be. Still, let’s look at a few of them.

You should apparently take regular doses of vitamins B6 and E. The trouble is, most tablets look quite similar to others, so given that a number of old people I know take enough pills every day to keep a medium sized pharma company in business, there’s a danger that they might accidentally overdose on the beta-blockers, rat poison and statins they already take, and end up sending themselves to an early grave.

Then there’s the regular glass of red wine you should be drinking. That probably explains why I sometimes forget the PIN number on my credit card – I don’t drink wine. For those who do, the advice doesn’t say how regular. Once a day? Once a week? Once every twenty minutes? Received wisdom suggests that a glass a night hits the spot. But come on – how many people do you know who, having got stuck into one glass, don’t proceed absent-mindedly on to another? For those who don’t know how to stop, the Mail primly points out that excessive drinking causes dementia. But if you’re demented already, why would you care?

You should also, apparently, consume large quantities of fish oil. Most old people probably remember (if they have any memory left) a horrible medication doled out by their cruel-to-be-kind mothers called cod liver oil. So their attitude towards taking capsules of fish oil is probably permanently tainted by the traumas of childhood. Perhaps the answer is to eat fish and chips five days a week. But then you’d get fat and die early anyway.

We’ve already covered one form of physical activity. Taking the dog for a walk, paragliding and chopping wood would probably come lower than sex in most people’s estimation, but not everyone is in a position to enjoy the fruits of Eros. Unfortunately even marathon runners succumb to dementia. But yes, taking exercise is pretty unarguable advice. So it’s good to lift a forefinger or ripple a thigh from time to time to remind ourselves we’re not dead.

The next tip is not so sensible, at least as far as I’m concerned: dancing. Dancing? Dear reader, if you saw me dancing you wouldn’t suggest that I include that one on my list. I gave it up years ago when my attempts to move gracefully started to resemble a rictus dance and had observers wondering whether to call an ambulance. These days I would probably give a good impression of an epileptic fit.

How about the delightfully vague exhortation to “enjoy a rich and stimulating environment”? What, I wonder, do they mean by that? Some might argue that being slumped in front of a TV the size of a wall with a tankard of red wine watching Manchester United grind out another tedious 1-0 defeat would be rich and stimulating. Which goes to show how utterly meaningless the expression is.

As for another piece of sage advice – that you should keep your brain active – perhaps the writer doesn’t realise that your brain does that for you already. While you sit with your wine, eyes glazed by boredom or in a state of collapse after chopping a winter’s worth of logs, your mind is busy click-clacking away making sense out of all the other foolish things you’re doing to stop it from seizing up. So when you take on a Sudoku puzzle, the chances are that your brain sighs deeply at yet another futile exercise, and goes back to working out a rich menu of dreams to keep you entertained at night.

Drinking green tea is the next tactic that the Mail suggests. Well, I suppose it can’t do any harm. But given the choice I’d take a cup of muddy Turkish coffee any time. After all, a couple of them and you’re ready to stay awake all night, do the rictus dance, solve a dozen Sudoku and summon up a few houris for good measure. Plus you can examine the grains to find out what remains of your fast-shrivelling future. In other words, you can discover how much more of this rich and stimulating environment you have to endure.

I’ve saved the best till last: don’t worry about life. Now we’re getting somewhere. Don’t worry that the world’s collapsing around you, that the bankers are preparing to take your savings and run for the hills. Don’t fret that your next-door neighbour might be making pipe-bombs in his kitchen, or that your other half beat you at Scrabble for the third time in one evening. Don’t be concerned that your knees don’t work any more and that you or your partner need to get up several times a night.

Just keep knocking back the red wine, occasionally stirring to reach for the remote control, and don’t worry. Because sooner or later you’ll be drifting off to la-la land, where nothing much matters anyway. Or, as John Lennon put it in one of the only songs about dementia I’ve come across:

Let me take you down, cos I’m going to Strawberry Fields
Nothing is real and nothing to get hung about
Strawberry Fields forever

Living is easy with eyes closed
Misunderstanding all you see
It’s getting hard to be someone but it all works out
It doesn’t matter much to me

That’s the kind of dementia I would look forward to, even if the reality might be very different.

From → Social, UK

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