February 22, 2018

Book Review: Still Alice Unveils the Mysteries of Alzheimer’s

Still AliceI was lucky enough to have my maternal grandmother live with our family for 10 years when I was a girl.  She used to tell me the most detailed stories of her childhood.  Born in 1905, she’d lost a younger sister during the great flu epidemic of 1918.  Her parents later adopted a newborn whose mother died in childbirth; the baby’s father couldn’t care for the 12 mouths he already had to feed and so they made arrangements through their church to raise him as their own.


Yet, when my grandma Dorothy would come visit me at the restaurant where I worked in high school, she’d marvel at the assortment of pies in the display case every time, carefully choosing which one would be her indulgence that day, but would ask me a week later where it was I worked again. My mom explained that is the way Dementia works- it erodes the memory’s more recent events first and gradually eats down to the earlier events from childhood.


Still Alice, by Lisa Genova, is the story of Dr. Alice Howland, a brilliant 50-year-old professor of Psychology at Harvard who discovers she has early onset Alzheimer’s disease, a particularly painful irony since her mind is what she values most.  The diagnosis is also especially shocking since Alzheimer’s disease doesn’t usually afflict people under 60, giving Alice the early on-set label (exactly like the recent announcement about Coach Pat Summitt of Tennessee women’s basketball). Yet I learned that hundreds of thousands of people are living with early on-set Alzheimer’s in America today. And more people than that are looking for answers to understand it and for ways to help their loved ones cope.


While Still Alice is a breathless page-turner, it also overflows with information. Author Lisa Genova, who holds a PhD in neuroscience from Harvard, has spent years studying the human mind. The composites of her years of study are brought to life in the characters and situations in the book; throughout, the detail given to Alice’s point of view is exquisite.


Still Alice is also the only book officially endorsed by the National Alzheimer’s Association. I argue it is a must-read for any family members who did or are caretaking a loved one with Alzheimer’s, or for the thousands of patients like Alice, recently diagnosed with the disease.


I actually had book mourning after reading it- that feeling we sometimes get after an exceptionally good book is over.


It is unsettling to read the book, though, and recognize early memory lapses of our own as possible precursors to Alzheimer’s or Dementia. Why was it I used to be able to remember everyone’s birthdays and phone number without ever writing them down?  I even knew my best friend’s parents’ birthdays and would remind her when those dates were approaching when we were teenagers.  Yet the more recent dates in my memory, the birthdays of nieces and nephews born in the last 5-10 years, elude me?


And why did I suddenly forget my ATM code last week after years of having the same one?  This is exactly why some people may not want to read the book, but not thinking about it won’t make it go away.


All in all, the human mind can be a fascinating topic, and Lisa Genova doesn’t disappoint.


Watch this short interview with Lisa Genova describing the process for writing the book.

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