The tsunami of dementia that is about to swamp us, as the Baby Boomers age, has got plenty of attention, but the reality has not sunk in.
We stave it off with jokes: Ronald Reagan goes in for his annual physical and the doctor says, Mr. President, I have bad news and worse news. Reagan says, Lay it on me, Doc. The doctor says, The bad news is that you have cancer. Reagan: And the worse news? Doctor: You have Alzheimer's. Reagan: Well, at least I don't have cancer.
Go ahead and laugh, if you think that's funny. We make jokes about Alzheimer's that we never would make about cancer--not because it's the inherently funnier disease but precisely because it isn't. Even a joke about Alzheimer's and cancer is inevitably a joke about Alzheimer's.
Dementia seems like an especially humiliating last stop on the road of life. There's no way to do it in style or with dignity. And you can't be sure that you're going to avoid it until the moment something else, like cancer or a big, big truck, comes along to carry you off first.
Baby Boomers -- the seventy-nine million Americans born between 1946 and 1964 -- will be the second dementia generation, but the first to know that it's coming. Our grandparents generally died too young or too poor to worry about what used to be called "senility." They didn't provide much in the way of foreboding for their children, who are our parents. For us, however -- the boomers, now in our fifties and sixties -- ways of dealing with infirm and often mentally impaired parents is one of the top five subjects of conversation.
So, "Death Before Dementia" is your rallying cry. It is also your best strategy, at the moment, since there's no cure for either one. Of the seventy-nine million boomers, fourteen million are expected to develop Alzheimer's or some other form of dementia. Alzheimer's is the most common followed by stroke. Longer life is probably the only reason that women are more likely than men to suffer from dementia. Anyone who lives past eighty-five, as more and more of us intend to, has roughly a fifty-fifty chance of exiting by way of Alzheimer's.
So, there are two forms of competition in the boomer death-style Olympics. There's dying last and there's dying lucid. And, in a really nice touch by whoever designed these games, the better you do in one, the worse you're likely to do in the other; unless you're lucky, you won't win both games.
Source: "Have You Lost YOur Mind?" article by Michael Kinsley in The New Yorker, April 28, 2014
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