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Alzheimer’s – which of us is heading for the sunset, and do we want to know? Depends on who we are…

February 21, 2017


The Guardian has an interesting report on the latest Alzheimer’s research. According to psychologists from a renowned Massachusetts medical institute, “rambling and long-winded anecdotes” and “worsening mental imprecision” are early signs of dementia.

The researchers analysed the work of novelists Iris Murdoch and Agatha Christie, and found significant changes in the language they used in their later books. They also looked at transcripts from Ronald Reagan’s press conferences:

“Ronald Reagan started to have a decline in the number of unique words with repetitions of statements over time,” said Sherman. “[He] started using more fillers, more empty phrases, like ‘thing’ or ‘something’ or things like ‘basically’ or ‘actually’ or ‘well’.”

His successor, George Bush the Elder, showed no such impairment at a similar age.

That Reagan’s descent towards dementia was evident in the last years of his presidency comes as no surprise to those of us who remember his hesitant press conferences as the Iran/Contra affair unfolded. Given that he was seventy-eight when he left office, you would have expected his faculties to have become somewhat autumnal. On the other hand, try telling the 93-year old Henry Kissinger that his intellectual powers are on the wane.

So here’s the thing. Dementia doesn’t deal an even hand. It can hit you at any age, though more frequently when you enter your eighth decade. Harold Wilson resigned as British Prime Minister at sixty. He is said to have been concerned about his declining cognitive powers, and subsequently developed Alzheimer’s. Donald Trump is seventy, the same age as Reagan when The Gipper first came to the White House.

In his recent press conference, Trump lurched from subject to subject, free-associating with gay abandon. As for empty phrases and fillers, do “great”, “sad”, “loser” and “failed” qualify? I guess we’ll have to leave it to the shrinks to figure out whether he too shows signs of pre-dementia.

Given his frequent bizarre logic leaps, it’s scary to think that he’s only at the start of his term, not nearing the end as Reagan was when his decline became evident. Even if it turns out that Trump shows no sign of incipient dementia, it’s hardly likely that at his age he’s at the peak of his mental powers.

If Paul Flynn – the 83-year-old British MP – is right in his description of the President’s intellectual capacity as “protozoan”, it seems likely that increasingly over the next four years, others will need to do his thinking for him. People like Steve Bannon, for example.

But enough of this scurrilous and disrespectful nonsense – Alzheimer’s is no joking matter. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. What’s more, Flynn is mistaken. Trump is far smarter than the average protozoa. He even knows where Sweden is – which is more than can perhaps be said for some of his supporters. And he has great words.

Fortunately for those of us who are paid-up members of the Ramblers’ Club, the Massachusetts researchers point out that a tendency to digress is not necessarily evidence of incipient dementia. What is significant is whether our manner of speaking and writing changes over time.

No problem for me then. When I was eleven, my head teacher described me as pompous. If he met me today, I’m sure he would say that I haven’t changed a bit. My wife would certainly concur. And as for long-winded – always have been and probably always will be.

The same went for my father. He was a lawyer. He was sharp as a pin up to the day he died. He was one of those rare people who spoke in paragraphs – rivers of speech delivered without a hint of hesitation, from which multiple, perfectly-ordered subordinate clauses cascaded. You might think he rambled, but only if you were brought up believing that three hundred words without a full stop are beyond the capacity of a human to understand.

I suppose it would be useful to know if one was about to tip into full-blown Alzheimer’s, though for most of us I can’t think why. Since every new wonder drug expected to reverse the decline seems to end in failure, there doesn’t seem much point in knowing ten years earlier that our eventual fate is an oblivion that can’t be prevented.

Unless, of course, we happen to be the President of the United States, and we are about to press the nuclear button when we think we’re telling the elevator to take us to the top of Trump Tower.

From → Politics, Social, UK, USA

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