Betty Friedan helped change our thoughts and language about gender relations. Martin Luther King, Jr. helped change our thoughts and language about racial relations. Now Dr. Peter Whitehouse is helping change our thoughts and language about aging – more particularly about our aging brains. And this is a very good time for another social revolution in thought and language. Seventy-eight million Baby Boomers are reaching a time in life when brain changes due to aging are inevitable and, with enough time passing, universal.
The language we use to describe the inevitabilities of cognitive aging tap into the deepest reservoirs of fear: senior moments, dementia, loss of self, and organic brain dysfunction. In particular, we think of two words with unspoken angst: Alzheimer’s disease.
In The Myth of Alzheimer’s: What You Aren't Being Told About Today's Most Dreaded Diagnosis, Dr. Whitehouse and his young literary protégé, Daniel George, address the very foundation of our cultural and social relationships to the most dreaded disease of modern times. First described in 1907 by Alois Alzheimer, this disease has grown into a “$100-billion-a-year marketing and research juggernaut, with more than 25 million afflicted worldwide.” The victims of this mysterious milady face ostracism, institutionalization, isolation, loneliness and dependency. The perpetrators of the Myths are comfortable with our collective fears because they inspire research budgets, drug sales, elaborate diagnostic testing protocols, and nicely decorated prison facilities.
Above all, the Myths perpetrators create another class of human being, the unfortunate mortals who are less-than-fully human because of diminishing memories, communication skills and competencies with the activities of daily living. They are dying brains without hearts.
To most of us, such a medical diagnosis is a decree worse than death itself. It is what we dread for our parents; it is what we fear for ourselves. The authors believe the time has come to change our language and our innate conceptions of cognitive aging
With more than 30 years of experience as a scientist and geriatric neurologist, Dr. Whitehouse has been at the forefront of the evolution of the disease we call Alzheimer’s. He has earned over a million dollars consulting with pharmaceutical companies about development of cholinesterase inhibitors, the contemporary silver bullets in drug therapies for early treatment of disease symptoms. He has accepted grants to support research and education in service of the same industry, valued at millions of more dollars. He has traveled the world to discuss the marvels of the coming cognitive pharmacopeia, again a benefactor of drug industry dollars.
And, finally, he has set in motion a pugnacious call for sensibility and a more informed public. As he portends, “(the book) is at root a book for Baby Boomers and health care professionals, and anyone else who wants to join me in bringing a new understanding to Alzheimer’s disease and taking control of their own brain aging.”
Taking control is a clarion call for the Boomer generation. Taking control is our legacy, and at exactly the right moment in the trajectory of our lives, Peter Whitehouse passionately compels us to take control of the source of our humanity, our creativity, our intellect, our personhood … our brains. He suggests we have choices if we have knowledge and wisdom. He suggests we have dignity if we change our paradigms. He suggests we have the power to change what it means to be human across the entire lifespan, up to and including the twilight months or years when some of us inevitably will confront the challenges of cognitive decline. He suggests we no longer need passively to resign to medicine’s most fearsome diagnosis, for either ourselves or those we love. He tells us we can deconstruct Alzheimer’s and together create a more humanistic, healthy and hopeful view of brain aging. That can be our generation’s final legacy.
To help us get from here to there (overcoming the tyranny of AD), the authors have written a new narrative about brain aging. By employing the transformative power of stories and anecdotes, buttressed by the precision of hard science, they take readers through a fascinating journey.
Unabashedly they stare down the mythmakers. AD is not a brain disease or a mental illness; symptoms we associate with AD are not simply a brain’s molecular breakdown occurring in old age but more often “a rainstorm that occurs throughout life.” A new conception demands this cluster of cognitive changes to become both an individual’s and humanity’s long-term responsibility, from personal health choices to taking care of the planet that sustains and, because of environmental degradation, poisons us.
Dr. Whitehouse challenges us that AD does not lead to loss of self, as we might have envisioned the plight of President Ronald Reagan; rather, persons with cognitive impairment are still able to be vital contributors to society until the final days of life. By evoking new paradigms about brain aging, we can allow people the noble opportunities to continue contributing. For example, Dr. Whitehouse is also a founder with his wife of The Intergenerational School, a farsighted institution that brings children together with wise teachers who are great repositories of life’s most important lessons.
If this book simply accomplished the objective of “creating a new cultural narrative that can shape the way we age in the twenty-first century,” it would be an important work worthy of careful review and contemplation. But the good doctor and his protégé take their work even further by creating a new model of living with brain aging. Dr Whitehouse unveils everything we need to understand, from preparing for a doctor’s visit to knowing how to live successfully with aging across the human lifespan.
So, in the end, he teaches readers how to “think like a mountain.” For example, Boomers can climb the first peak by rethinking mortality. Instead of elevating “anti-aging” as the highest purpose for our credit cards, Dr. Whitehouse suggests that the energy (both psychic and monetary) for self-preservation can instead be directed at “becoming agents of great change in the world,” the final expression of Boomers’ highest aspirations in youth. Another peak to scale is self-indulgence that costs our health. So simply he suggests eating well, exercising judiciously and eliminating bad habits that foster disease.
This seminal book isn’t just about Alzheimer’s or the Myths that infuse the disease with too much power over our collective consciousness; it is the most intelligent work thus far about our generation’s final crusade, the quest for wisdom in our longevity.