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International Day Against Alzheimer's Disease International Day Against Alzheimer's Disease
by Alexandra Pereira
2008-09-21 10:01:38
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Two men, side by side, stroll through a green summer garden, with their backs turned to the photo camera. One of them, the taller one, has his arm around the other man’s back and the right hand resting on his shoulder. The pudency and delicacy of this photo made the covers of all three major Spanish newspapers, “El País” (close to the PSOE), “El Mundo” (close to the right wing) and “ABC” (close to the monarchic cause), in the same day, two months ago.

3_400_03The men walking together are King Juan Carlos of Spain and Adolfo Suárez, former Spanish prime-minister and jurist. The photographer is a son of Suárez, who wanted this moving, almost timid photo to document a private moment between “two people who have lived many things together and have reached the end of a path”. Probably he wanted to record for himself a warm and dignified memory of his father as well.

Juan Carlos had gone to Suárez household to grant him the highest distinction by a Spanish Monarch, the Collar of the Insignia of the Golden Fleece, in a domestic environment. Suárez is part of the living memory of Spain, but he does not remember that. “My father does not recall that he was once a prime-minister”, the son of Suárez tells, “He did not recognize the King, but he was enchanted with his affection”.

Suárez was the first democratically elected prime-minister of Spain after Franco’s dictatorship, and played a major role in the transition to democracy, task which was very personally entrusted to him by the King, not to irritate or rise the military factions and the right-wing extremists. On February 1981, he was resigning when the past burst again in Madrid: lieutenant-colonel Tejero invaded the parliament with his guards, shooting guns and ordering the deputies and ministers to lie on the floor.

All of them laid and hid behind their seats, except for three people, who did not crawl: one of them was Adolfo Suárez. He does not remember that, but Spanish History does. Suárez was diagnosed with the Alzheimer Disease three years ago. “My father does not recognize anyone [he first asked his relatives who was that man walking in their garden], but he thanks for the affection”, his son explains, “and don Juan Carlos was very affectionate, as my father showed something of his old affection and fidelity towards the King too”. 

Alzheimer Disease (AD) patients and their families often live unnamed private dramas. Memory is the fundamental base for most cognitive activities, and it becomes highly impaired. One can imagine how it would be to live with a blank past, constantly mirrored in a tremendously frustrating present, watching one’s own language breakdown, motor coordination problems, and the progressive loss of bodily functions.

One can imagine, but 27 million people worldwide live with it every day. They don’t remember the meaning of things nor abstract concepts, they can’t recall events, they can’t remember familiar faces nor the names of friends and family members, they cannot get dressed, eat and plan tasks by themselves, write a poem or make a sketch, they have to struggle with mood swings, hallucinations, aphasia and isolation, depression and the incapacity to learn new facts or form new memories.

1_03While AD’s mechanisms are well known, scientists still discuss its causes. Deposits of amyloid beta fibrils, forming plaques of excess outside the neurons, are thought to relate with the onset of the disease. AD is connected with high levels of stress, psychological, physical and economic problems of the caregivers, usually close relatives of the patient, sometimes forced to give up their jobs so that they can spend enough time taking care of the affected person. Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Iris Murdoch or Rita Hayworth are famous examples of people diagnosed with AD.

A common degenerative dementia, popularly described by Alois Alzheimer under the name of “amnestic writing disorder”, during a psychiatric conference held in Tübingen, Germany, more than one hundred years ago, it is acknowledged today that the condition had been described before by at least three other physicians. But it was Emil Kraepelin, Alzheimer’s boss in a Munich’s clinic and the father of Modern Psychopathology, who was largely responsible for its final designation, by including the description of the symptoms and pathology in the eight edition of his book Psychiatrie (1910), where he calls the condition “Alzheimer Disease” for the first time.



  
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