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March 3, 2012

“Still Alice”

by Anne Paddock

“She liked being reminded of butterflies. She remembers 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.”    

Early onset Alzheimer’s disease is the term used for anyone diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease before the age of 65. In “Still Alice.” Lisa Genova, a neuroscientist that holds a PhD in neuroscience from Harvard University, tells the fictional tale of a 50-year old woman who is diagnosed with this devastating disease.  Alice Howland is a tenured Professor of Psychology at Harvard University whose career has been devoted to the study of the mechanisms of language through research and teaching – an irony not lost on readers who quickly realize the organization of language and communication is slowly taken from those stricken with Alzheimer’s disease.

Alice Howland is an accomplished woman in her prime.  She is married to a man who loves and understands her, has three grown children and an enviable career at a top university. Life isn’t perfect – her children, especially her youngest daughter cause her to worry – but Alice has a good life.  Little things start to happen to Alice – she forgets where she is or how to get home, doesn’t recall meeting someone who she was just introduced to a few minutes prior, can’t remember how to make a recipe for pudding that she has been making for decades, and cannot recall certain words.  Since Alzheimer’s disease can only be diagnosed with a biopsy or autopsy, Alice decides to go for genetic testing to determine if she has one of the three genetic markers that can indicate the presence or future presence of Alzheimer’s disease and the diagnosis is devastating.

The author does a remarkable job of blending the scientific jargon with real world experience in explaining how this disease rears its ugly head and leads to diagnosis followed by the progression of an illness that offers no remission or cure; a disease that literally takes away the person and then the life. In one of the most poignant passages in the book, Alice is struggling, clinging to her professional life when she raises her hand at a psychology seminar and asks an analytical question that is quickly judged to be an excellent observation. Reading this passage, I felt relief, secretly cheering that she was “still Alice.” But then…a few minutes pass by and Alice raises her hand and asks the same question again, forgetting that she had just posed the same question minutes before. The point of her question was spot-on and she realized “the fact that she had Alzheimer’s didn’t mean she couldn’t think analytically.”  What she didn’t realize is that having Alzheimer’s meant she was losing her short-term memory and therefore could not recall what had been said minutes before – that she was repeating herself.  Without short-term memory, analytical thought falls short.

The story takes place over a 2-year period: from September, 2003 to September, 2005 and is heartbreaking at times.  There are moments of panic and fear in reading the chapters of this book as the author provides an intimate look at how the victim, family, friends, and colleagues deal with a disease that is robbing them of their wife, mother, friend, and co-worker. Alice’s life was shortened by Alzheimer’s disease but her life was not tragic and that is a key point of the story for what matters is not the number of years she lived but what happened during those years and through it all, she was still Alice.

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