Taking a good attitude about cognitive “deficits”

I recently read an article in the April 28 New Yorker by Michael Kinsley who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s twenty years ago and is beginning to evidence some cognitive “deficits” as, he says, neurologists “put it tactfully.” The article treats a very unfunny subject – the onset of dementia in Parkinson’s patients – in a manner that ranges from witty to laugh-out-loud funny. My favorite example of the later is a discussion of famous people with Parkinson’s, including Hitler, Franco, Mao Zedong, Michael J. Fox and Thomas Hobbes (the author of Leviathan who said life is “poor, nasty, brutish and short.”) Kinsley writes: “Is it just a coincidence, I ask you, that both Hitler and Franco were nasty, brutish and short? Chairman Mao was five feet eleven. Michael J. Fox is neither nasty or brutish but he is undeniably short.”

Because dementia is associated with the later stages of Parkinson’s, Kinsley decided to take a cognitive assessment test that he had taken twice before, once right after his diagnosis and then again eight years ago. “My motive was part scientific inquiry, party hypochondria, and part the journalist’s reaction to any interesting development – this will make a great piece.” The test showed a decline in executive functioning. The doctor told him it is exactly the decline that would be expected in people in their sixties who received the diagnosis in their forties. Kinsley remarks, “Although doctors are devoting their lives to helping people get better, they seem to find a strange satisfaction in seeing a disease take its expected course.”

One of Kinsley’s most interesting observations comes right at the beginning of the article. “You are the person least qualified to be writing about changes in your own brain, since you need your brain to comprehend these changes. It’s like trying to fix a hammer by using the hammer you’re trying to fix.” A happy insight for me caring for a mother with Alzheimer’s. I think her disease is protecting her from realizing how much she has slipped mentally. Like Kinsley and Lori, her attitude is good.

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