The word I first heard to describe dementia in the elderly was “senility.” “Poor Grandma’s going senile,” they said. When you look back at the word roots of “senility” you see that the word goes way back to the Latin word “senex” for “old man.” Other words based on the same root are English words “senior,” and “senator” (!) and the Spanish word “se~nor”. These uses seem to imply that senescence is just the natural course of aging. As Shakespeare says in “The Seven Ages of Man” :

“Last scene of all…is second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” [my emphasis]

So I start to wonder if senility or “senile dementia” comes to everyone.

In the medieval morality play Everyman, the main character loses his strength, beauty, discretion and five senses before he dies. If indeed this happens to “every[wo]man” it is universal. Perhaps we could look on it as “letting go” of all the things and memories of this world in order to embrace the new life in God. Some even look on this as a good and natural transition—losing touch with this world and turning toward the afterlife instead.

Alzheimer’s Disease was first described in 1906. This makes sense because until the 20th century living long enough to show symptoms of Alzheimer’s was rare, according to Wikipedia. Or was it? See above. Up until the 1970’s, most dementia was blamed on Alzheimer’s. Only later were other types of dementia differentiated. On a personal note, however, none of the elderly people I saw suffering from dementia during the 60’s and 70’s were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I never heard that word until much later.

The primary argument for dementia’s being a disease and not a natural feature of aging is that not everyone gets it. There are plenty of geriatric patients who are mentally sharp until they die. Statistically, 2/3 of the senior population are free of Alzheimer’s when they die, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. That sounds pretty encouraging to me, though the Association prefers to phrase it “1 in 3 seniors dies with Alzheimer’s or other dementia.”

A more disturbing statistic is that between 2000-2015 deaths from AD increased 123%. This rate is predicted to rise as the population continues to age. On the other hand, deaths from heart disease DECREASED during the same period. The Association points out that there are cures and lifestyle changes to help the other causes of death, but none for Alzheimer’s.

So, whatever we call it, Alzheimer’s is a disease that most old people do NOT get. It is not a natural part of aging, like gray hair and wrinkles. We have no cure, so we need to put our effort into coping with the disease and helping our loved ones enjoy their last years as the disease takes its course.

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