Not all that long ago, when someone’s grandma started acting a little "strange" she was considered senile. This deterioration of the brain was considered normal aging even by many doctors. As Grandma’s behavior got worse, she would often be hidden away from public view to avoid embarrassing the family.
According to an abstract in the National Center for Biotechnology Information, in 1906, a clinical psychiatrist and neuroanatomist, Alois Alzheimer, reported "A peculiar severe disease process of the cerebral cortex" to the 37th Meeting of South-West German Psychiatrists in Tubingen. He described a 50-year-old woman whom he had followed from her admission for paranoia, progressive sleep and memory disturbance, aggression, and confusion, until her death 5 years later. His report noted distinctive plaques and neurofibrillary tangles in the brain histology.
With this information, it’s shameful that the senility that was often Alzheimer’s disease - not normal aging - wasn’t recognized by mental health professionals earlier than it was. Yet, it shouldn’t be surprising. The study of mental and cognitive health issues of all kinds has been slow to keep up with the study of what are considered to be physical illnesses.
The last two decades have brought a flurry of research to the forefront as cases of what finally has been recognized as Alzheimer’s has reached nearly epidemic proportions due to our aging population. Cases of younger onset dementia have brought even more notice as the public annoucements of high profile people who have developed the disease has increased. Yet, the stigma remains.
Recently, though, the arts and entertainment world has gotten involved in spreading awareness about Alzheimer’s. Last spring, a PBS documentary and later a Glenn Campbell documentary that was shown in selected theaters highlighted the effort tward informing the public about the disease.
Even earlier, back in 2007, the film “Away From Her” made headlines. Julie Christie received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress for her portrayal of Fiona, a woman with Alzheimer’s who voluntarily enters a long-term care facility to avoid being a burden to Grant, her husband of 50 years. This movie was a huge step forward.
Now, following the success of "Away from Her," "Still Alice" has taken the spotlight. Julianne Moore won Best Actress in a drama at the 2015 Golden Globes for her starring role. Moore plays a Columbia professor diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease in the movie which is based on Lisa Genova’s 2007 novel by the same name.
While I’ve been reading and even reviewing books on Alzheimer’s for over a decade, the idea that film producers will gamble huge money so that major stars can bring alive roles featuring Alzheimer’s is still a little startling - yet thrilling.
I haven’t yet had a chance to view "Still Alice," but I will see it when it runs in my community.
By far, the greatest achievement of this film will be the awareness that it brings to the general public about Alzheimer’s. I’m hoping that this film will help lower the level of stigma that still affects those with dementia. When people become educated about issues affecting others they tend to become more understanding. If they are entertained along the road to awareness, they tend to be more willing to learn.
Millions of people will see this film. If only a handful use this knowledge to work toward making others more aware of Alzheimer’s and other dementia, then the film will have done far more than entertain and make money. It will have helped change the world.
The discovery of Alzheimer’s disease. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181715/
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. She is a newspaper columnist and the author of Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories. Bradley Bursack is also a contributor to several books on caregiving and dementia, and is passionate about preserving the dignity of elders. Her website is www.mindingourelders.com. Follow Carol on Twitter @mindingourelder and on Facebook at Minding Our Elders.