The ‘diseased’ world of our elderly

Submitted as a rapid-response to the BMJ, 6 March 2013:

As a psychiatrist for older adults I have noticed not just a scientific but also a cultural change in our appreciation of memory function as we age. Ten years ago those waiting for my clinic had a range of reasons for presenting but today one predominates: concern about memory loss.

It is not uncommon to hear that whilst in the waiting room our elders are anxiously practising with their family: who is the Prime Minister and how to spell WORLD backwards.[1]

My concern is that a reductionist approach to memory loss in our elderly is now prevailing and that it is not based upon available evidence. The timely diagnosis of dementia is important but we must remember what the evidence tells us: that there are a range of reasons for mild memory loss. It is important that we do not ourselves forget that early amnesia may be age-related and non-progressive for a significant majority of our elderly.

Everywhere I now look, whether it is in the BMJ, the latest promoted symposium or in the general media, ‘Dementia of an Alzheimer’s type’ is referred to as ‘Alzheimer’s disease’. With current imperatives for early diagnosis (and increasingly cognitive screening) any early amnesic memory loss is most likely to be labelled as ‘early Alzheimer’s disease.’ It seems that for our elderly the disease model has displaced the clinical classification as set out in ICD10 and DSM-V.

Does this matter? We hear about ‘Alzheimer’s’ (as it is generally now shortened) every day. The definition we assume can only be robust as huge amounts have been spent on research. The director of research at the Alzheimer’s Society recently concluded that “the paradigmatic brain pathology of Alzheimer’s disease – plaques and tangles – is only a post-mortem finding of limited explanatory value in the expression of dementia in the population.”[2] It is also quite clear that the pharmaceutical industry, after 40 years of extensive research have concluded that neural plaques have a complicated and far from specific relationship with ‘Alzheimer’s disease’[3]

Currently being promoted are products specifically marketed for ‘early Alzheimer’s disease’ both as tests to assist ‘early diagnosis’ and dietary or vitamin symptomatic treatments. The market is considerable and will no doubt tap into a culture of fear that has been heightening for several decades.[4]

The risk is that far too many of our elderly will be wrongly labelled as diseased: that would indeed be a world spelt backwards.


This is a copy of a Rapid-response post to the BMJ – 6th March 2013:

Dr Hannah Zeilig gives a fascinating talk in this area: “What do we mean when we talk about dementia?” It starts about 16 minutes in:

[1] Manthrope, J et al From forgetfulness to dementia, Br J Gen Pract 2013; 63: 30–31

[2] Ballard, C et al Alzheimer’s disease, Lancet 2011 Mar 19;377(9770):1019-31

[3] George, D et al Through the amyloid gateway, Lancet Vol 380 December 8, 2012

[4] Zeilig, H. Dementia as a cultural metaphor, The Gerontologist. Feb 2013 doi:10.1093/geront/gns203

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