For people of my age, the news that John Noakes has Alzheimer’s is terribly poignant. He was the daredevil of Blue Peter‘s holy trinity of Val, John and Pete – one of nature’s schoolboys, attempting stunts that no BBC presenter would be permitted to attempt today. We became used to the cheery insouciance with which, say, he hauled himself to the top of Nelson’s Column. It didn’t occur to us how close he came to getting himself killed – and it was’t until years later that he revealed that the BBC paid him next to nothing.
So how awful to learn that Noakes, now 81, could not haul himself out of a storm drain near his home in Majorca, having wandered off without supervision. He’s doing as well as can be expected, says the hospital, but of course there’s no hope of recovery from Alzheimer’s.
I say ‘of course’ because the disease is incurable and also now incredibly common. One in nine peeople over the age of 65 has it it, and in America the proportion of deaths from Alzheimer’s increased by 68 percent between 2000 and 2010.
Is the mere fact that we’re living longer sufficient to account for that increase? This scholarly article on the epidemiology of Alzheimer’s Disease suggests that we don’t know.
Old age is by far the biggest risk factor, but the article reports that type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure also increase the likelihood of getting Alzheimer’s. Yet just this week researchers claimed that people with high blood pressure were at lower risk – possibly because of the anti-hypertensive medication they take (meaning, I assume, beta-blockers – we’re not told).
It seems likely that there are measures you can take to protect yourself against Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. We’re just not sure what they are.
And as for a cure – well, take a look at this survey of recent research into dementia. I didn’t understand much of it, but read the last paragraph:
The number of reports on promising diagnostic measures and procedures continues to grow. Yet, none of them approach the reliability and convenience of tests such as hemoglobin A1c for the diagnosis of diabetes. Nonetheless, the promise of early detection combined with disease modification promises a substantial reduction in the associated cost of both private and public dementia care. Recent reports further indicate a possible treatment that will prevent the crippling disability of the disease. They promise proof of Fries’s 1980 hypothesis that morbidity can be compressed to the end of the life span, countering fears of an epidemic of disabled, dependent seniors.
Speaking as a layman struggling to come to terms with the dementia of someone close to me, I can’t say my fears of an epidemic are remotely ‘countered’.
One feels so helpless in the face of vicious cognitive impairment. So, no doubt, does Mrs Noakes. All we can do is hope that John is still capable of grasping the enormous affection he has inspired in millions of people.