The Alzheimer’s Obsession

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, one in three dies with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. If you do not die from Alzheimer’s, you die with it.

Are you cowering yet? Are you looking about you and wondering if you are one of the three? When you lose your glasses, do you find them and get on with your life, or do you obsess? Although we do not yet understand the constellation of factors that lead to Alzheimer’s, there is a genetic pre-disposition, and as the daughter of two parents who died with Alzheimer’s, I am at a risk that goes beyond one in three. Do I look over my shoulder? You bet!

tally sheetBut I’ve moved beyond obsession. When I was knee-deep in caregiving and observing my parents’ decline on a daily basis, I was obsessive. If I forgot a friend’s name, I would put it down to Early Onset. I kept track of my lapses. Obsessively, I ticked off my lapses. I kept score. I tallied my lapses.

But once my parents passed, I found that my mind snapped back. I wasn’t nearly as bad off as I thought I was. I I felt more cognizant. Not to say that I didn’t continue to read the research and keep my antenna tuned.



Prior to a diagnosis of dementia, the English author Iris Murdoch, found that writing was increasingly difficult. Needing to quantify her loss, she did a readability study on her past and present work, and indeed, her scores indicated that she was half-way down the slippery slope.

I had nearly forgotten the Iris Murdoch story until about a month ago when I compared two versions of my own writing. Re-reading this year’s blog about taking the train from London to Paris, I remembered that I had written previously on the very same trip.  I thought it might be interesting to compare the two blogs.

Writer's Block

Writer’s Block

At first glance, the 2012 blog was superior, but just to quantify my emotional response, I used the Edward Fry Readability Scale on both posts. The 2012 blog scored at ninth grade reading level; the more recent blog scored at a seventh grade level! Talk about losing ground! Apparently, like Iris Murdoch, I was losing ground.

The Fry readability scale relies on the number of sentences in a 100-word sample and the number of syllables per sentence. Three, 100-word samples are averaged, and those numbers are factored into a sliding scale that gives you a grade level, readability score.

Not to quibble with a respected formula, I started to think more about the length of my sentences and the number of polysyllabic words. As an example, looking at the previous sentence, I have 24 words and 38 syllables – five syllables thanks to polysyllabic. Quite respectable numbers. Longer sentences and more polysyllabic words result in a higher score. But if you look at the entire piece, I have many one syllable words and (just for starters) one, two-word sentence; one, three-word sentence; three, four-word sentences; and one, five-word sentence.

Iris Murdoch unwisely relied on a readability formula to measure her decline. My writing may be going downhill, but if I were to intentionally write longer sentences and use more polysyllabic words, I could easily raise my score and fake my cognitive loss.

Presently, I am reading Dear Life, a collection of short stories by Alice Munro winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013. Having just completed a readability study on my own work, I was curious as to how Munro would score. Munro uses everyday, one and two-syllable words; yet she is a master storyteller: her stories are nuanced and layered. With surgical skill she flays the skin off the everyday people who inhabit our world.

Choosing two, 100-word samples, I counted the number of sentences and syllables. One, 100-word sample had only three sentences! Not one word was over two syllables; yet, because of the sentence length, that particular sample scored at 20th grade level.

Dick_and_JaneI could write longer sentences, but do I want to? What’s the point? Longer sentences and more syllables per sentence are useful measures in choosing grade-level books for school children, but as evidenced by anyone who grew up learning to read with Dick and Jane, the writing itself is wanting. If I have any writing aspirations, I would aspire to watch my characters flay themselves and then record their thoughts and actions as accurately as I could. Watch and record.

Alzheimer’s? It will come or it won’t. Obsession is for movie-makers, not for real life.

Postscript: If you have an interest in Alzheimer’s, I recommend your following “Watching the Lights Go Out,” a blog by David Hilfiker, a doctor diagnosed with Early-Onset Alzheimer’s. Hilfiker has given up his practice of medicine, but he generously shares his fact-finding,  frustrations, and first-hand experiences.

About timeout2

I have lived 100 lives. I write essays, short stories, poetry, grocery lists and notes to myself. If I am ever lost, look for a paper trail, but be careful not to trip over any books that lie scattered here and there. I am a reader. I am a reader in awe of writers. When I don't live in Westcliffe, Colorado, I live in London where I am a long-time member of Word-for-Word - Crouch End.
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4 Responses to The Alzheimer’s Obsession

  1. Robyn says:

    Very timely subject for me, Doris. After being with my Mother who is suffering from severe memory loss, I now question my own daily!

    • timeout2 says:

      Dear Robyn, I have been thinking of you… wishing you well. Caring fora person with Alzheimer’s is tough. When I was working in Canon and driving daily to Pueblo, I kept a tape recorder at my side. All my questions and anxietiesspilled onto thetape. I found it useful to vent. Machines are so non-judgmental. The interesting thing is that my mom has been gone for… I don’t know… ten years maybe. I have kept the tapes but have not had the courage to play them. I am afraid that I will be found “wanting.” If you haven’t read Still Alice by Lisa Genova, I recommend the book. The author holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Harvard. “Alice” isa world expert in linguistics andteaching at Harvardwhen she is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s.”Still Alice” is a rare chance to view the Alzheimer’s experience through the patient’s eyes.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    Love the \Wwriter’s Block pic!

  3. Elizabeth says:

    Or Writer’s Block pic! I seem to be having keyboarding issues.

    I don’t worry when I’ve forgotten something. A young man once told me that the real problem of forgetfulness isn’t age. He said that we are bombarded with so much information on a daily basis that our brains can’t keep up. We get more info in a day than people used to get in their whole life.

    Watching the news is a great example. Talking heads. Pictures at the side. Breaking news scrolled across the bottom of the screen.

    I heard of a nine year old boy who walked into another room and said, puzzled, “What did I come in here for?”

    Now if I could just remember who the young man was!

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