Garcia Marquez's Death Highlights Confusion About Dementia

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • I was greatly saddened last week to learn about the death of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Noble Price-winning novelist. I loved reading two of his books – One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera – and hope to read more of the imaginative fiction he concocted.


    Sadly, I had seen reports over the past few years that Mr. Garcia Marquez was ailing. He had been diagnosed with lymphatic cancer in the late 1990s and was described as having developed dementia in 2012. However, media outlets described that he had “senile dementia" when he died. I wasn’t as familiar with that specific diagnosis as I am with Alzheimer’s disease, vascular disease and some of the other dementias – and for good reason why.  Both the Alzheimer’s Society of the United Kingdom and the Alzheimer’s Association stated that the term “senile dementia” is actually an outdated term. This wording was used when experts thought that memory loss and confusion were normal parts of the aging process. The Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation points out that senility is now more commonly described as dementia and may affect the ability to concentrate, recall information and judge a situation properly. 

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    Mr. Garcia Marquez’s brother, Jaimie, told the New York Times, in 2012 that his brother had been experiencing dementia for a period of time and that the cognitive decline was accelerated due to the cancer treatment. “Dementia runs in our family and he’s now suffering the ravages prematurely due to the cancer that put him almost on the verge of death,” Jaimie Garcia Marques stated. “Chemotherapy saved his life, but it also destroyed many neurons, many defenses and cells, and accelerated the process.”  However, in that same story, Jamie Abello, who directs the Gabriel Garcia Marquez New Journalism Foundation in Cartagena, said that Mr. Garcia Marquez’s dementia had not been clinically diagnosed.  Mr. Abello went on to say that Mr. Garcia Marquez was, at the age of 85, just showing normal cognitive decline that is often seen at an advanced age.


    Unfortunately, Mr. Abello’s comments are not in sync with what we know about dementia today. While the risk of dementia does increase with age, developing dementia is not a normal part of reaching an advanced age. “A commonly held misconception is that aging results in an inevitable loss of cognitive abilities and that nothing can be done to halt this decline,” reports the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at Emory University. “Research, however, does not support these claims. While certain areas of thinking do show a normal decline as we age, others remain stable.”


    The center points out that the knowledge and experience that have been accumulated over a lifespan remain stable with aging. Additionally, a person’s recall of past events that have been remembered over a period of many years also remains fairly stable with age. We also are normally able to maintain simple or focused attention and to communicate verbally as we age. Elders also should be able to continue to tap into their unique way of approaching solutions to problems they’ve previously experienced; however, if they have not encountered a specific problem, elders may need additional time to come up with a solution and may have difficulty thinking of alternatives to solve the problem.  The center does point out one specific area -- speed of processing when doing cognitive and motor tasks – that is affected by aging. However, this finding mean the elders need more time, not that they are unable to perform these activities.


  • Based on this information from leading researchers, I’d suggest that it’s a misnomer to suggest that Mr. Garcia Marquez’s dementia was due to normal aging. Instead, I think many factors – including his family history of dementia and the cancer  – helped to fell this literary lion. May he rest in peace!

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    Primary Sources for This Sharepost:


    Alzheimer’s Association. (ND). What is dementia?


    Alzheimer’s Society. (ND). Senile dementia.


    Emory University Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center. (ND). Cognitive skills & normal aging.


    Feeney, M. (2014). Nobel winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez dies at 87. Boston Globe.


    Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation. (ND). Senile dementia.


    Itzkoff, D. (2012). Brother says Garcia Marquez has dementia. New York Times.


    University of California, San Francisco. (ND). Normal aging vs. dementia.

Published On: April 20, 2014