Friday, September 28, 2007
Last night, we attended a lecture at UCSF on Alzheimer's Disease. As we headed for the campus, I said, "I'm glad you decided to come with me."
"I'm the guest of honor," said Flip. "The specimen."
"You may be the guest of honor, but they have the right of way," I commented as someone ran a stop sign. Flip's cautiousness saved us from being sideswiped on the crest of a hill.
The evening began, somewhat amusingly, with people committing atrocious acts with their cars in the University parking lot in their haste to get to the Alzheimer's lecture. Flip, who was driving, grew increasingly agitated and finally burst out to no one in particular, "You got mental problems?" (For some reason, when angry, Flip reverts to a New York accent which I recognize, having grown up there, but to which he has no entitlement since he is from Los Angeles.) I have to admit, grudgingly, that he has a point: New Yorkese is the perfect medium for expressing rage.
We had to sign in and show photo ID's for security. Like in airports. Apparently, the University believes that journeys of the mind are as likely to attract terrorists as those in which people are bodily transported from place to place. We were directed to follow the purple balloons to the Conference Center. I thought with wry mirth of Dick and Jane as, holding hands, we navigated the many twists and turns highlighted with balloons to the auditorium. Dick and Jane run, run, run to an Alzheimer's Evening. Or maybe, Dick and Jane Grow Up.
We turned to each other at the exact same moment and said, "I wish I had a pin." It's no accident we're together. "I hope the balloons are still here when it's over," said Flip. He must have been traumatized by Hansel and Gretel, whose intentions of following their trail of bread crumbs home were defeated by hungry birds.
The lecture was devastatingly informative. We were shown diagrams of how the disease, characterized by plaque and tangled, ropey fibrils, progresses. It always follows the same path through the brain. It is inevitable. There are no loopholes, no reprieves for good behavior. Section by section, it destroys every part of the brain, removing everything that makes a person who he is and leading finally to the end stage where he forgets how to swallow and breathe.
The only thing up for grabs is how long it takes in a particular instance. This disease completely robs a person of himself. My heart is breaking even as I recognize the benefit of knowing now how it will be then. There was a panel of two neurologists and a financial adviser, which I thought odd until he explained how much the care of someone in the later stages costs. It's beyond terrifying. President Bush cut a huge amount of money from research of this disease right before he began the war in Iraq. He has also made it increasingly difficult for people to get state aid for such care. After all, we have nations to conquer. Perhaps his rationale is that if he kills off enough young Americans, there will be fewer people who might be afflicted if allowed to grow older. Meanwhile, the disease is exploding as baby boomers age.
One of the doctors stated that what we need is something as powerful as chemo for Alzheimer's, and there is nothing even remotely close. Because of Bush's cuts, he said, we have lost an entire generation of young scientists who might otherwise have gone into Alzheimer's research, but now will not. During the Question and Answer phase of the evening, I had a possibly wacky idea which I wanted to ask about, but didn't get called on:
A number of years ago, Human Growth Hormone was highly touted as an anti-aging treatment. Movie stars were flying to Switzerland for injections of the substance that was believed to dissolve some kind of mysterious bodily plaque. Since one of the factors in Alzheimer's is the growth of plaque in the brain, I wonder if perhaps treatment with HGH could be helpful in reversing it. The disease typically attacks the elderly and only rarely someone as young as Flip, although that is changing, so it seems that anti-aging procedures or medications could have some effect.
I wish I were a scientist because if there is to be a cure, it is absolutely necessary to consider the problem from a new angle. I say that with all respect for those who are using their difficult and expensive medical educations to study diseases and to offer hope to all of us that the nightmare of Alzheimer's will one day be over. The Alzheimer's Association had a table spread with cookies which I recognized as a Pepperidge Farm assortment and some brownies that Flip declared excellent. I collected many pamphlets from a longer table and we left, fitted out for our disease as with a diaphragm. We missed the season premiere of "Gray's Anatomy" because of a real medical problem. I guess that's fitting, in a way.