The Forgetting

By David Shenk.
ISBN 0 00 653208 X

This “biography of a disease”, Alzheimer’s, stands with the best
of popular books on any clinical subject and is one that will be of
interest to practitioners and lay people alike.

It is much more than an account of the epidemiology of the disease.
There are references to classical understandings of dementia, old
age and memory as well as the stories of famous victims, including
Ronald Reagan, Emerson, Willem de Kooning and Jonathan Swift.

But it was only in the early 20th century that Alois Alzheimer
diagnosed his 54-year-old patient, Frau D, as having the disease
which now takes his name (even if now pre-death diagnosis can only
be “probable”).

Shenk has a gift for the explanatory metaphor. He combines the
stories of carers and patients with an examination of the financial
self-interests of US researchers. He shows that Alzheimer’s disease
is not a consequence of old age but that the longer we live the
more likely it is to visit us and finds meaning in its being “one
of the best lenses of life and the meaning of loss”.

In this and in questioning the benefits of medically created
longevity, this is more than a “biography of a disease”; it is an
examination of our humanity.

Terry Philpot is the author of On the Homes Front
(Caritas, 2003).

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