Under my byline

Rusting from the top

Posted in Health by Rrishi on 31 August 2008

The Iron Lady is losing her edge, but Indians may be able to talk their way out of dementia

The Iron Lady’s mind is growing rusty. So says her daughter in a new memoir, titled A Swim-On Part in the Goldfish Bowl. Now 82, Margaret Thatcher suffers from dementia, a progressive decline in the brain’s functioning that affects the memory, language, attention, problem-solving abilities, social behaviour and sense of orientation of, mostly, elderly people over 65.

Carol Thatcher first noticed the change in her formidable mother during a conversation over lunch in 2000. The former PM confused the Balkans crisis of the 1990s with the Falklands war of the 1980s. In 2002 her mother suffered a series of small strokes and gave up public speaking.

Now, Carol writes, her mother keeps forgetting that her husband Denis died in 2003. “Every time it finally sank in that she had lost her husband of more than 50 years, she’d look at me sadly and say ‘Oh.’” But her mother’s memories of the Downing Street years are relatively clear.

Dementia is not unusual among the elderly. Usually there’s no cure. Doctors only hope to diagnose early and then slow the rate of decline so the person can remain functionally independent as long as possible.

There are many causes, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, syphilis, thyroid gland malfunction, substance abuse, even boxing, if the pugilist has taken too many hits to the head. Scientists also think that excess belly fat during middle age raises the risk of dementia in old age, because of the particular chemicals it produces.

Prevention is the only safeguard. You’re safer if you have a mentally and physically active life and regular but moderate alcohol intake, watch your blood pressure and, possibly, follow a “Mediterranean” diet that forestalls major nutrient deficiencies.

Margaret Thatcher was known for her sharp political brain and her head for detail — and she was certainly active even after being ousted as PM. Yet that clearly wasn’t defence enough.

Scientists long thought that dementia affected fewer people in poorer countries. But a new study using data from developing countries including China, Mexico and India shows that the rates of dementia are roughly the same as in the West. As our population ages, there will be many more sufferers. Not much is being done to prepare for this future crisis.

We do have one safeguard in India: a 2007 study says that in fully bilingual individuals, who use more of their brain, dementia can be delayed by as much as four years. Most of us are at least that.


2 Responses

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  1. J Wightman (Dr) said, on 30 December 2008 at 5:36 am

    Came across this when looking for something else – but I am stimulated to pass on my own thoughts. It is my observation that older people in India do indeed keep their marbles intact for longer than their western counterparts. I would suggest a more thorough survey.
    My point – Haldi (turmeric) has many influences on the body – in particular, 1) maintaining the health of the synapses in the brain and other nerve bodies and 2)the ‘lubrication’ of membranes in the joints. How many people in India do NOT receive a dose of haldi at lesat once a week (day!)? I believe sincerely – and many others do to – that this common spice mitigates the derangement of the nerve pathways in the brain are associated with Alzheimer’s, etc.

  2. Rrishi Raote said, on 30 December 2008 at 11:48 pm

    Dear Dr Wightman,

    Thank you for your comments. You’re right, I don’t think there’s been nearly enough work on senile dementia in India — geriatric medicine in general is an under-favoured field here. There are also social/cultural reasons why seniors in India “keep their marbles” longer, although things seem to be changing fast.

    I love haldi in my food, of course, and will look it up to see what the experimental background is. It’s worrying, in this regard, that if there’s a sign of a medical benefit, someone somewhere may choose to patent the active compounds in haldi and other spices… on some perfectly legal but historically unfair grounds. On this issue too — IPR — I really don’t know enough!

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