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The Forgetting
A Profile of the 'Demographic Time Bomb' of Alzheimer's Disease

audio Listen to Noah Adams' interview author David Shenk on All Things Considered.

Sept. 5, 2001 -- Alzheimer's disease has been called a "demographic time bomb" that has evolved from a curious affliction to an American epidemic. In the past quarter century, the number of elderly people diagnosed with the disease has risen from 500,000 to five million.

David Shenk
David Shenk is the author of The Forgetting. Alzheimer's: Portrait of an Epidemic
Photo: Jon Shenk

And the disease is not just an American affliction. Over the next 50 years, estimates of the number of people who will be diagnosed with Alzheimer's range from 80 million to 100 million.

But the numbers don't tell the real story of fear and loss -- felt by both the disease's victims, and the families and health care professionals who eventually must care for an elderly patient during the final helpless moments of his or her life.

David Shenk's best-selling book Data Smog warned of the perils of an Information Age where too much information could stifle human creativity, rather than promote it. Shenk's latest book, The Forgetting. Alzheimer's: Portrait of an Epidemic puts the shadow illness into an artistic and historical context.

Shenk also uses genetics, psychology and biology to better explain the subtle horror faced by people who are slowly robbed of their maturity and intellect -- and sometimes, even their dignity.

"There's a lesson here: Alzheimer's is the best lens we have on what loss is..... Alzheimer's is peeling away life like an onion, very, very slowly -- and you get to see the layers of life, the layers of the mind."

David Shenk

NPR's Noah Adams spoke with Shenk recently about his novel and the disease itself -- an ailment he likens to a "mirror" of our own development from infant to adult.

"What's actually going on... is following in reverse order the path in which the brain is originally wired," Shenk told Adams. In this sense, Shenk says, caregivers can better understand what will happen next as the disease progresses.

"There's analogies between (caregivers) raising kids and taking care of their parents, who have the abilities of kids," he told Adams. "There's a lesson here: Alzheimer's is the best lens we have on what loss is.

"Alzheimer's is peeling away life like an onion, very, very slowly -- and you get to see the layers of life, the layers of the mind."

Shenk added that while there have been tremendous advances in finding a prevention and possibly a cure for Alzheimer's, the prognosis for a victim today is not good: "If you've already been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, the chances of a miracle cure coming along before you get to the mid or late stages are remote," Shenk told Adams.

Shenk is an occasional commentator for All Things Considered.

Other Resources

The Forgetting • Shenk and his publishers at Doubleday/Random House have created an online resource about Alzheimer's, complete with links to caregiver resources, latest news and facts about the disease.

The Alzheimer's Association has extensive information and links.

The National Institute on Aging has information on Alzheimer's and other diseases related to aging.