Engrossing review of the latest advances in the science of memory and brain disease.
During the 1990s, Alzheimer’s replaced AIDS as an American mass phobia, writes veteran science journalist Halpern (The Book of Hard Things, 2003, etc.). Polls place Alzheimer’s second after cancer as the nation’s most feared disease, and it’s first among those older than 55. But, like thinning hair and wrinkles, memory problems occur during normal aging, she informs us. This is cold comfort to anyone who loses her keys or forgets to pay the phone bill, lapses that stimulated the middle-aged author to “get her head examined” and quiz the scientists doing the examining. Halpern intermixes her own experiences with interviews. Her subjects, most of them university faculty, do a good job explaining how we remember, what can go wrong and what they are doing about it. Heredity plays a role, but despite headlines regularly announcing the discovery of the Alzheimer’s gene, it’s unlikely that a single genetic trigger exists; instead, scientists have found plenty of genes that increase the risk. Detecting early memory loss has become a minor industry that often involves high-tech scans and MRIs, even though paper-and-pen tests work as well. (Halpern did both.) The author investigates research to boost memory and turns up one method that works: regular physical exercise. Folk wisdom to the contrary, doing crossword puzzles or math problems doesn’t help. Many drugs increase memory in animals; given to humans, their success rate remains steady at zero. There is as yet no “cure,” but Halpern stresses that breakthroughs occur much faster after scientists understand a disease, and Alzheimer’s is no longer the baffling puzzle it once was. Researchers with new ideas and high-tech equipment are turning up specific anatomical, molecular and genetic abnormalities that govern memory and its loss.
High-quality science writing: an illuminating picture of investigators at work and a lucid explication of their findings.