Tag Archive | memory loss

Profiles in Dementia: Ronald Reagan (1911 – 2004)

Ronald Reagan Younger PortraitFor reasons that I cannot logically remotely fathom, except that perhaps we humans are highly susceptible to creating sanitized and palatable versions of our recollections of “the good old days,” which in fact were never as good as we remember them to be and may have been downright horrible, United States President Ronald Reagan is continually held up as a hero and a paragon of virtue, wisdom, and good governing.

The reality then and now could not be further from the truth in any of these categories.

Even before Ronald Reagan was president, his mental status was a source of concern. He often made contradictory statements, had frequent difficulty remembering names and people, and regularly seemed to be prone to absent-mindedness.

I was very young when President Reagan came into office, but I have clear recollections of how bad the economy was during his tenure (President Reagan was the “trickle down economics” president, promoting the pie-in-the-sky idea that if the United States gave financial preferences to the very wealthy, then they would in turn create jobs and juice up the economy down through the poorest people in the nation) and how much wrong-doing occurred during his presidency.

Don Henley’s “End of the Innocence,” depicting pervasive corruption, dishonesty, greed, and despicable behavior that touches every part of life and written during President Reagan’s presidency has become, in my mind, the most honest and enduring description of the United States, from its politicians to its businesses to its people, has a couple of verses that deeply resonate with me every time I think of President Reagan’s years in office:

“O’ beautiful, for spacious skies
But now those skies are threatening
They’re beating plowshares into swords
For this tired old man that we elected king

Armchair warriors often fail
And we’ve been poisoned by these fairy tales
The lawyers clean up all details
Since daddy had to lie”

Henley’s song refers to the Iran-Contra affair, which, in more detail than ever before, exposed the truly despicable and seedy underbelly of how the American government, military, and intelligence services have always manipulated, by whatever means were deemed necessary (the end justifies the means), world geopolitics to attempt to give the United States the upper hand in outcomes.

It is very likely that the real principles – Colonel Oliver North threw himself on his symbolic sword as the fall guy when it came to light – in this scandal took advantage of  President Reagan’s already-apparent cognitive impairment.

Evidence that President Reagan was already into his progressive slide into dementia includes his often-confused testimony during the Iran-Contra hearings and the unprecedented number of times, with obvious confusion on his face, he said “I don’t recall.”

President Reagan had already begun his descent into dementia when he took office in his first term as the president of the United StatesWhile this statement is a standard in legal defenses, what made President Reagan’s more than a legal maneuver was that it was clear that he really didn’t recall much at all.

This year, a study was done by researchers at the University of Arizona on President Reagan’s speech patterns during his eight years (1981 – 1989) as president of the United States.

What the researchers found were subtle changes during those eight years that revealed the tell-tale signs of the change-in- communication step of the journey through dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease.

These included searching for words, substituting generic terms like “thing” for specifics President Reagan could not remember, and a decreasing range of vocabulary as his time in office progressed.

Although President Reagan’s dementia was not publicly announced until 1994 – a move I believe was calculated to give enough time after his presidency to remove suspicion that President Reagan had dementia while in office – it has since become clear that his dementia gave the people around him the leeway to set in motion the kind of governing (and it does nobody except people and institutions with a lot of money and a lot of blackmail-type secrets any favors, while getting sleazier and sleazier by the minute) we live with and take for granted as “normal” today.

President Ronald Reagan died on June 5, 2004.

Profiles in Dementia: Zelda Fitzgerald (1900-1948)

Profiles in Dementia Zelda Fitzgerald Going Gentle Into That Good NightI recently finished reading Sometimes Madness is Wisdom: Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald – A Marriage. I highly recommend it, although it’s a harrowing book in so many ways.

Two of those harrowing aspects are Scott’s alcoholism and how he deliberately and consciously broke Zelda, who had her own demons and a genetic predisposition toward mental illness, for good.

A third harrowing aspect of this book is the barbaric state of psychiatry – diagnosis and treatment – in the 1930’s and 1940’s.

Zelda, who was diagnosed in 1930 with schizophrenia (most likely an inaccurate diagnosis, since it’s highly unusual for schizophrenic’s first symptoms to not appear during adolescence), was repeatedly subjected to three types of treatment routinely used for schizophrenia.

Not only did they, in many ways, exacerbate Zelda’s mental illness as well as qualify for legalized torture, but two of them eventually caused irreversible neurological damage, including cognitive impairment and memory loss consistent with all forms of dementia.

The first of these that Zelda endured over the course of 18 years was insulin coma therapy. Begun accidentally by Viennese physician Manfred Sakel, it involved giving large doses of insulin hourly daily for several weeks to keep the patients in a comatose state. It was believed that this gave the brain a chance to rest and heal itself.

Of course, other than the obvious risks of not being able to bring patients out of the comas (happened regularly) or death (also happened regularly), the high doses of insulin produced a prolonged state of hypoglycemia, resulting in permanent neurological damage.

The second treatment that Zelda was routinely given was chemically induced seizures. This treatment, based on very iffy logic at best, was pioneered by Hungarian pathologist Ladislas Joseph von Meduna.

Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald 16 Years Old Going Gentle Into That Good Nightvon Meduna made the unscientific leap with his observation that because people diagnosed with epilepsy rarely were diagnosed with schizophrenia. Therefore, he concluded that the epileptic seizures – and their aftereffects, which to von Meduna’s mind seemed to indicate blissful happiness – must be the reason for rare schizophrenic diagnoses. von Meduna then concluded that the seizures could cure schizophrenia.

By the time Zelda was subjected to chemically induced seizures, the original substances used to induce seizures – strychnine, absinthe, caffeine, and camphor – had been abandoned in favor of the drug Metrazol.

Given to schizophrenics in a regimen of 30-40 injections, with the injection rate of two to three times a week, the first injection produced such a powerful seizure within a minute of injection that torn muscles and fractured bones were not uncommon.

Beyond the high physical risks of violent injury, Metrazol also caused permanent memory loss.

Zelda died in a tragic fire at Highland Hospital, a psychiatric hospital, in Asheville, North Carolina in March of 1948, during the latest of on-and-off commitments to the facility she had from 1936 onward.

Zelda Fitzgerald Self-Portrait 1940's Going Gentle Into That Good NightHowever, in many ways, Zelda was gone years before the fire took her physical life. Zelda spent the last several years of her life devoid of memory, devoid of personality, and devoid of any sort of intellectual spark. 

Zelda’s physical appearance was so drastically changed that friends and acquaintances had a hard time recognizing her. 

Even in her hometown of Montgomery, Alabama, where she lived with her mother when she wasn’t at Highland Hospital, Zelda was unrecognizable to people who’d know her and her family all their lives. 

Zelda spent the majority of the daylight hours in Montgomery restlessly and aimlessly wandering around town in old, ragged, dirty clothes with no evidence of any care for personal grooming until her mother would find her and get her home before darkness fell.

It was a sad end of days for Zelda Fitzgerald.

Profiles in Dementia: Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882)

Ralph Waldo Emerson and Concord, MA writersI recently read Susan Cheever’s American Bloomsbury, a compelling account of the interwoven lives of the Concord, MA literary giants of 19th Century literature and, with a notable exception (Nathaniel Hawthorne), the core members of both the Transcendental Movement and the Abolition Movement that saw John Brown as a heroic martyr.

This group of closely-interconnected writers included, among others (Edgar Allan Poe passed through as did Walt Whitman and Herman Melville), Emily Dickinson, Louisa May Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Despite all my college studies in English Language and Literature, I have never been able to really like – or even endure – most 19th Century American literature. (Yes, I’m American and, yes, I really loathe this period of American literature for the most part.)

My three exceptions are the three writers in this Concord, MA conclave who never quite fit in with the mindset and the groupthink of the rest of the writers: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Emily Dickinson.

I won’t bore you with all the reasons – and there are many – why I like these three writers and don’t like the rest.  If in another lifetime I decide to start a literary analysis blog, a post with those reasons will definitely make its appearance there.

Ralph Waldo Emerson Dementia and AphasiaSo, although I read my required – and no more – share of Ralph Waldo Emerson, I didn’t know much about him as a person. This book shed a lot of light on that.

Emerson, it turns out, was the financial support for these writers and their families, some for all their lives (Henry David Thoreau) and some until they published successfully (Nathaniel Hawthorne and Louisa May Alcott).

Emerson was older than most of the other writers and was treated by them as a father figure and a mentor. Emerson was intelligent (a graduate of Harvard), thoughtful, and a practical intellectual who guided this group in both their literary endeavors and their personal lives.

So I was surprised to learn that Emerson developed dementia (Cheever, perhaps because she has not dealt with dementia in a more personal way, made the common mistake of calling it Alzheimer’s Disease, which is only one type of dementia), accompanied by aphasia during the last decade of his life.

Because aphasia was a key feature of Emerson’s neurological degeneration, it’s very possible that he suffered from vascular dementia, since aphasia is very often a feature of that type of dementia.

One of the devastating aspects of aphasia as it worsened for Emerson was that he had supported his family and, to one degree or another, many of the other Concord writers for decades by conducting a rigorous yearly schedule of paid speaking engagements around the country. Once his ability to communicate coherently was gone, Emerson’s income was gone as well.

In the last couple of years of Emerson’s life, he forgot most of the people and things around him in Concord, MA. Louisa May Alcott, whom Emerson had known for 42 years, watching her grow up from a nine-year-old spunky girl into an equally spunky woman, became a stranger to him, as did his family. 

The Forgetting PBSHowever, and this is fortunate, in the acclaimed PBS documentary, The Forgetting, Emerson is quoted as having remarked, when he was well into the disease, to a friend that, “I have lost my mental faculties but am perfectly well.”

I plan to make “Profiles in Dementia” a regular feature on this blog since I’ve got a lot of stories like these that I’d like to share and will give another dimension, in terms of personal interest, to this blog.

So, if you like this one and you like the idea, let me know by your likes and comments.

This blog’s for you, so you have a voice in what kinds of things are included here.

I appreciate you reading and hope that you will find the extensive body of information here helpful in your journey with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease, whether that’s as a caregiver for loved ones or it’s you that’s walking the journey yourself.