Challenge, Not Inevitability: Alzheimer’s in Seniors, Term Paper Example

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Introduction

Unfortunately, it is typical to think of advanced age as a time in life in which development ceases, or decreases to an imperceptible degree.  More common, in fact, is the assumption that senior citizens regress mentally; until the late 19th century, it has largely been assumed that senility occurs to some degree with age, and aging itself is viewed as a degenerative process (Jacyna, Casper  115).  Added to this scenario is the relatively modern awareness of Alzheimer’s disease, usually affecting the elderly and often having severe impacts on the individual’s mental processes.  With Alzheimer’s in place, modern attitudes regarding any potential for development in senior citizens is sadly reinforced in a negative way.  Nonetheless, and as evidence increasingly suggests, there is no definitive correlation between advanced age and reduced mental development.  Moreover, even Alzheimer’s is seen as subject to influences countering its harmful effects.  If seniors citizens face more dire potentials in diminished mental growth, and if this is exacerbated by Alzheimer’s, it appears that such processes are not inevitable.  Actual mental growth and development in the elderly is most definitely possible, even as science seeks to address the biological factor of Alzheimer’s as further impeding such development.

Discussion

As noted, associations between the elderly and lessened brain functioning have been in place for long centuries.  The view is particularly prominent in Western cultures, and even researchers have traditionally shared in the belief that, with age, mental development radically declines (Hockenbury, Hockenbury  274).  This became so common in past eras that expectations of senility, or even what was classified as “dementia,” were anticipated as inevitable after individuals reached a certain age.  It would not be until 1907, when a Dr. Alois Alzheimer examined the brain of a 51 year-old woman suffering extreme mental problems, that the actual disease would be identified.  Alzheimer discovered, during an autopsy of the patient, that a significant number of brain cells were gone, and in their place were growths and plaques (Brill  38).  What is particularly notable here is that this initial case was so young, which indicates how the onset of Alzheimer’s may well occur in middle age.  This then indicates age itself as a questionable causal agent of the disease.

Since Alzheimer’s breakthrough, massive research has gone into exploring just how this disease develops, even as treatments are devised to forestall or eliminate it.  It is established that the primary differences between seniors with Alzheimer’s and those not suffering from the disease are largely biological in nature.  When Alzheimer’s is present, abnormal deposits of proteins are detected in the brain.  These deposits typically create Neurofibrillary Tangles, which are masses of proteins that interfere with neural processes, cause inflammations in brain regions, and break down synaptic pathways (Steinberg, Bornstein, Vandell, & Rook  583).  The patient, consequently, displays all the symptoms classically associated with advanced senility.  Memories are disjointed, and in no predictable manner; the Alzheimer’s victim may recall with perfect clarity an event in the distant past and be unable to remember their address.  Persons known to them all their lives are suddenly strangers, just as full recognition may reoccur.  In simple terms, the disease “short-circuits” the brain, and in ways and to degrees varying with each specific case.  What is know, however, is that it does not abate, and the degenerative process usually worsens.

While no specific cause has yet been identified for Alzheimer’s, it is widely felt that multiple factors generate these brain abnormalities.  Certainly, high-risk populations have been established, and in ways not entirely reflecting advanced age.  For example, head injuries earlier in life increases the risk of the disease, and it has been found that there is a hereditary component; the person with a parent suffering from Alzheimer’s is twice to four times as likely to develop it as well.   Then, a mutation of the gene apolipoprotein (APOE) is found in over half of all Alzheimer’s patients, as opposed to approximately 20 percent of non-afflicted adults (Steinberg et al  583).  Other considerations are studied as well.  In addressing Alzheimer’s, or any notion of deteriorating mental ability with age, medicine and science has steadily worked to both understand and counter social and environmental structures defying progress.  More exactly, as research in the mid-20th century revealed, there are no inevitable brain matter losses with advanced age, and this set science on a more expansive path.    It began to seem that loss of brain function in older adults was largely a matter of self-fulfilling prophecy, and that cultural expectations of such loss served to create precisely that.  The elderly were not so much stigmatized by society because they were senile; instead, they were senile because they were stigmatized (Jacyna, Casper  115).  In a significant and extensive study performed in the 1990s, for example, strong evidence was found that perception actually dictates mental performance.  Samplings of young and older people were taken from several cultures, notably the U.S. and China, as these societies vary greatly in how they regard the elderly.  A range of memory tests were assigned, and the results uniformly indicated that, in the Chinese culture, performance was consistently high among the elderly; conversely, American scores were low, conforming to the lesser status American society affords its senior population (Hockenbury, Hockenbury  274).

No serious gerontologist or scientist dismissed the risk factor inherent with age, but there was a growing ideology determined to maintain a better perspective regarding that risk.

There can be no underestimating of just how cultural views impact on age and mental ability, simply because of how pervasive the attitudes have been, and for so long.  Though largely discredited today, 19th century neurologist George Miller Beard ultimately set out what would become the American ideology of the subject when he published his work absolutely asserting that age brings about “feeble” thinking.  A further cultural legacy of this work, which remained dominant well into the mid 19th century, was that moral lapses predictably followed these mental failings (Jacyna, Casper  111).   The senior citizen was presented as an inevitably declining individual, and in all behaviors and capabilities.  Modern thinking, thankfully, dismisses most of this rhetoric.  Some degree of lessened mental functioning does seem to be correlated with advanced age.  Nonetheless, increasing research indicates that much of this may be a result of cultural and/or environmental restrictions or expectations.  For example, in studies done on a wide variety of animals, there are frequently dramatic increases in brain growth and synaptic connections as age increases.  These increases, moreover, relate directly to enriched environments and alterations in external stimuli (Hockenbury, Hockenbury 84).   As has been noticed with Alzheimer’s patients, in fact, this may be a key component in countering any deterioration due to aging.  With the disease itself, stimulation must be carefully applied; consistency and moderation are the goals, as undue excitement easily disorients the sufferer (Soukup  114).  Nonetheless, and as innumerable active senior citizens exemplify, the mind kept interested and alert in advancing age seems to be the mind more likely to enjoy continued development.  Alzheimer’s remains a distinct disease, yet it may be that, in uncovering treatments for it, science establishes modes of approach that encourage all senior brain activity.

Conclusion

It is likely that stigmas in place for long centuries are easily eradicated, and a great deal of Western thinking seems to still hold that age brings about an inevitable decay of mental processes.  The tragedy of Alzheimer’s tends to reinforce this, as the disease typically affects the elderly and is characterized by symptoms associated with advanced senility.  What is changing, however, is that culture itself is being recognized as a significant component in these equations, and one that may well go to assisting in Alzheimer’s treatments.  Simply, increasing amounts of evidence suggest that advanced age and lack of development are not synonymous, just as a biological understanding of Alzheimer’s proves that such damage is frequently, and literally, a disease.  With more research, then, it may be discovered that other, minor forms of Alzheimer’s generate the weaknesses associated with old age, just as it is now believed that cultural values do the same.  What matters, of course, is that all work being done points to a positive conclusion: mental growth and development in the elderly is most definitely possible, even as science seeks to deal with the biological factor of Alzheimer’s as impeding this development.

Works Cited

Brill, M. T.  (2005).  Alzheimer’s Disease.  Tarrytown: Marshall Cavendish, 2005.  Print.

Jacyna, L. S., & Casper, S. T.   The Neurological Patient in History.  Rochester: University of   Rochester Press, 2012.  Print.

Hockenbury, D. H., & Hockenbury, S. E.  Psychology, 3rd Ed.  New York: Worth Publishers, 2002.  Print.

Steinberg, L., Bornstein, M. H., Vandell, D. L., & Rook, K. S.  Lifespan Development: Infancy Through Adulthood.  Belmont: Cengage Learning, 2010.  Print.

Soukup, J. E.  Alzheimer’s Disease: A Guide to Diagnosis, Treatment, and Management. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1996.  Print.

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