Sunday, June 14, 2009

Still Alice

Another book, another post. Yesterday I finished Still Alice by Lisa Genova, a novel about an accomplished professor at Harvard who comes down with early-onset Alzheimer's Disease at the age of fifty. It's written from the point of view of the woman, and I simply could not put the book down. Another night of reading until midnight, and then I got up in the morning and finished it.

A few years ago I went to my primary care physician to have a simple test to determine if I had any obvious problems with my memory, because I had begun to forget names and was having that "it's on the tip of my tongue" event happening more and more often. The test she administered to me is the same one that was given to Alice in the book. (My doctor didn't think I had anything more dangerous than age-related decline.) It turned out that Alice was diagnosed with a genetic form of the illness, handed down from her father, and that her three adult children had a fifty percent chance of having it too.

I remember once knowing a woman whose mother had died of early-onset Alzheimers at 55, and I asked her if she had been tested to see if she had it too. My friend chose not to be tested. In the book, two of Alice's three children were tested, with one having it and one not, the other, like my friend, choosing not to know.

Now, we all know that as we get older, memory is not as reliable as when we are on the top of our game in our twenties and thirties. But lately I have noticed that "tip of my tongue" happening much more often. I know some name or some place, but I just cannot think of it. When I stop trying so hard, it usually begins to emerge from my mind, and if I really care enough, I might try to snatch it out and lose it again. Or, it might pop into my mind. I find myself using wikipedia and the online dictionary/thesaurus to find the answer sometimes.

I cannot recommend the book highly enough. I think I can say I now have a much clearer idea of what might be "normal" memory loss and what might be important to pay closer attention to. I remember when I first had the test, one of the exercises was to count backwards from 100 by 7. I had a really difficult time doing it, until I realized that I could go backwards by 10 (easy) and then add 3, which is what I did. Sometimes I will lie in bed and count backwards by either 7 or 6, just for fun, because it's a good memory exercise and once seemed terrifically hard to do. I was so convinced that nobody could do it easily that I asked a friend if she could do it, and she said, "sure: 93, 86, 79, 72, 65..." And she did it that fast!!

I was worried that I had a problem with one of my memory circuits. I think I'm not someone who thinks that way very often, and that it might be one of my memory pathways I should exercise, just like I exercise my biceps. I'd be interested in what any of my readers here might have to add to this, since it's a very interesting concept: can I exercise mental pathways that will keep them toned up? I know they say that doing crossword puzzles, learning a new language, etc. is good for the brain, is this the same thing?

(News flash: a comment from Kathy gave me a link about Alzheimers that is worth checking out:, and Still Alice author Lisa Genova left a comment and a website:

In the novel about Alice, as she began to lose her ability to use language effectively (and she was a psychology professor who studied language!), she began to gain the ability to gauge people's emotional states through visual clues, becoming more attuned to emotions (and probably to another part of her brain). The reason butterflies are on the cover of the book relates to a story that Alice's mother told her when she was little:
She remembered being six or seven and crying over the fates of the butterflies in her yard after learning that they lived for only a few days. Her mother had comforted her and told her not to be sad for the butterflies, that just because their lives were short didn't mean they were tragic. Watching them flying in the warm sun among the daisies in her garden, her mother had said to her, See, they have a beautiful life. Alice liked remembering that (p. 111).
By the time you reach your seventh decade, you can't die a premature death any more. At the age of 66, I think sometimes how short a time our lifespan is, but when I think of all that I have experienced in these years, it seems a very long time. In fact, if I were to develop Alzheimer's now, it wouldn't even be considered early onset. These are facts that give one pause.

And I still seem to have time left in my life to write blog posts, read my favorites, and surround myself with the blessings of health, abundance (not massive amounts of it, but enough), a good mind, and my community of friends and family. It is enough.


  1. I really enjoyed reading this post, but I had to laugh at the numbers test. Even at the top of my game I never could have counted backward from 100's by seven! Thanks for passing on the little trick of subtracting ten then adding three; now when my kids drag me in for testing, I'll know how to pass it!

    Maybe the reason we have problems remembering things instantly is because we have a lot more stored than when we were twenty. A LOT more. Give ourselves a break, already! (My computer is slowing down too, which irritates me a lot more than my own brain's slower speed. I'm rather indulgent toward my brain, you see. She is so much more complex than I realize.) Oh, the irony of my brain describing itself as another entity!

  2. Getting Alzheimers is something we all dread as we get older and yes, I have those "forget the name of it" moments too. I put it down to my brain being full up now, so a lot more digging has to go on, like a closet full of clothes and the dress you want hides! A couple of years ago I went to watch a movie called "Away From Her" starring Julie Christie. I went with a friend who couldn't get anyone else to go because they all thought it would be a miserable film. It wasn't, for the same reason, I suppose, that your book was inspiring to you. Here is the write up on that movie.
    "In Away From Her, Julie Christie was Oscar-nominated for Best Actress for her portrayal of Fiona, a woman with Alzheimer's who voluntarily enters a long-term care facility to avoid being a burden on Grant, her husband of 50 years. After a 30-day separation (recommended by the facility), Grant visits Fiona and finds that her memory of him has deteriorated and that she's developed a close friendship with another man in the facility. Grant must draw upon the pure love and respect he has for Fiona to choose what will ensure his wife's happiness in the face of the disease. Christie won a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture (Drama) for her performance in this movie.

    I really enjoyed reading this post. Your descriptions made the book come alive.
    Blessings, Star

  3. I rented that movie, Star, from Netflix, for the same reason: I could not get anyone to go with me to see it. It's because Julie Christie is such a wonderful, beautiful actress that I wanted to see it, and yes, it's stunning. I really felt bad for her husband, but so much of the movie was so incredibly poignant and beautiful that I absolutely loved it. I would watch it again in a second.

    Linda, I am glad that YOU, who I think has a brain filled with synapses and connections to die for (I mean that), cannot do that test so easily makes me feel enormously better!

    Both of you, thanks from the bottom of my heart for your comments, which mean the world to me.

  4. I always had trouble with names, but then I would say it’s because they sound foreign to me. It would be easier for me to remember names like Pierre, Monique, Marie-Claude, Guillaume, etc. rather than the names from around here, but I forget a bunch of stuff too and I think that it’s part of slowing down, that’s all. I try not to worry about what I can’t change or not to worry about the unknown as I think that I may attract it to me as in the quote by Brian Tracy (don’t remember who he was…) “You are a living magnet. What you attract into your life is in harmony with your dominant thoughts.” You know, there is always something – my mother did not worry about losing her memory but then she did not know that she would get Parkinson’s disease and become paralyzed, so why worry.

  5. I loved Lisa's book, Still Alice!

    My name is Kathy and I am the full time caregiver for my eighty year-old Dad who has Alzheimer's and lives with me in North Carolina.

    When my Mom died in 2004 and Dad moved in with me, I had no idea what to do. But day by day, I found ways to cope, and even enjoy having my Dad with me.

    So I started writing a blog at, which shows the "lighter" side of caring for someone with dementia.

    After a while, I added over 100 pages of helpful information and tips for caregivers. We even have a Chat room so caregivers can communicate with each other from home.

    Please pass this link along to anyone you feel would enjoy it.


  6. Hi Kathy! I made a link to your site (which I checked out; it's wonderful) in my post, since I couldn't figure out how to make it clickable within your comment. Thanks for the great information; I'll be spending some time on there looking for some more answers.

  7. Hi DJan,

    Thanks so much for reading Still Alice and writing such a great and thoughtful review of it here! I'm so glad you liked it.

    You might be interested in the Blog I write for the National Alzheimer's Association, especially the entries: Building Neural Roads (March) and When is it Normal and When is it Alzheimer's.

    The website is:

    And Hi to Kathy!

    Best wishes,
    Lisa Genova

  8. I really appreciate this post. My mom has Alzheimer's and I never thought there would be a book out there that would be a patient's perspective. Thank you.

    My brother and I have done some research in keeping Alzheimer's away, and we have found that heart health is a big factor. Low blood pressure and low cholesterol=lower chance of Alzheimer's. Also, activities where the brain has to coordinate both hands to work together, like typing or playing guitar, keep the pathways working and can help tremendously, too.

    Thanks again!


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