What science has learned about the brain, aging, and Alzheimer’s disease.
“Am I going to get it? And if so, when?” For most people, those are the most pressing questions about Alzheimer’s. Science writer Ingram (Theatre of the Mind: Pulling Back the Curtain on Consciousness, 2005, etc.), former co-host of Discovery Channel Canada’s Daily Planet, knows that scientists cannot answer those questions at the moment, but he offers a cogent and informative history of the disease and overview of current research. Even if the increasing prevalence of obesity and diabetes shortens life expectancy, some scientists predict that 50 percent of children born since 2000 will reach 100 years of age. Many people, therefore, will experience five stages of life: childhood, youth, adulthood, old age, and very old age, motivating scientists’ interest in the connection between very old age and memory loss. That interest began in 1906, when Alois Alzheimer discovered curious plaques and tangles in the brain of a woman with early-onset memory loss. But the disease named for him doesn’t necessarily present those symptoms in all sufferers, and some people with plaques and tangles never lose their memories. Moreover, researchers have found these structures in autopsies of young people, leading them to look for causes other than aging, such as environment and genetic mutations. While drugs are being developed to prevent or slow memory loss, Ingram identifies some strategies that seem to help: keeping mentally active (the brain, scientists have discovered, is plastic, able to develop new connections); maintaining a low body weight; getting adequate exercise and sleep; and limiting sugar intake. This last recommendation results from research that connects Alzheimer’s to “disturbed insulin function in the brain.”
In clear, accessible, and upbeat prose, Ingram demonstrates his optimism about the possibility of aging with an agile mind, and he is hopeful about finding an effective treatment for sufferers.