Tuesday, October 25, 2011

“The Queen can never get Alzheimers Disease” : Speaking with Dr. Jennifer Foley.

'Playing Sudoku doesn't help'. The popular conception that AD does not appear in brains that haven’t been 'trained up' is, according to Dr. Foley, a misunderstanding that can, far from helping, lead to added stress as people try to learn new things they don’t enjoy rather than focussing on things they already do.

We spoke to Dr. Foley about the initial stages of AD and noticeable things that start to happen. Getting lost while driving, forgetting routes and maps, not grooming quite so well, putting the wrong things in the wrong places (like a can opener in the fridge).

One symptom that felt especially interesting to us was the changing ability to manage household tasks, particularly if a process that requires a number of stages is interrupted. It is this interruption of a physical action, when someone is required to hold onto previous stages in a process, that can lead to confusion. In this way, a physical process like laying a table for a dinner party or preparing a meal, can, when disrupted by another task, become ruptured.

This moment, she described as a ‘blankness’. This seemed an incredibly apt description to us of the point in time, sometimes only a few seconds, where the chain of a sentence or an action is broken, and there is a momentary disorientation.

Another interesting point of discussion was the idea of ‘prospective memory’, which can also be affected in the early stages of AD. This is the ability to remember future tasks (‘remember to call X back later this afternoon’). The separation here between the cognitive processing of the future and the past is incredibly difficult for researchers to disentangle. To what extent is this prospective memory - remembering to do something in five minutes time - the same process as remembering something that happened five minutes ago?

Finally, Dr. Foley told us (with tongue firmly in cheek), that technically, the queen can never be diagnosed with dementia, because a crucial part of the diagnosis is a change in your ability to look after yourself which, as it’s all done for her, will never be detectable at Buckingham Palace.

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