John Thorndike | The Last of His Mind |

Archive for February, 2011

Salt, Eggs and Antioxidants

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

morton-saltAbout thirty years ago a girlfriend put her hand on mine at the dinner table and told me I should put down the salt shaker. Salt, she said, was bad for me. I thought she’d slipped a cog. Salt? She had to be kidding.

No, she was quite serious, and quoted some some studies about how too much sodium could lead to high blood pressure. I parried with the fact that my father took salt tablets in hot weather to replace the salt lost in perspiration—and he was in great shape. (Indeed, his heart did pretty well until he developed atrial fibrillation and then congenitive heart disease, in his early nineties.)

In any case, two or three years after that advance notice by my health-conscious girlfriend, I’d joined the big boat of salt avoiders. Today, my GP says I don’t have to worry much about it, because my blood pressure is fine. All things in moderation.

What I’m driving at is how easily we are driven by the winds of dietary and food advice. In particular, the recommendations for Alzheimer’s patients are all over the map. Don’t let him drink coffee, I was told only six years ago—yet today the wisdom seems to be that caffeine is good for those with dementia. Eat a diet rich in antioxidants has been staple advice for decades—but consider a recent article in Newsweek by Sharon Begley, who describes how we’ve long been advised to load up on antioxidants, which help to control the free radicals responisble for aging, cancer and heart disease.

“Not so fast,” says Begley. “First, studies piled up showing that taking antioxidants—even such common and seemingly innocuous ones as beta carotene and vitamins C and E—as supplements was not beneficial to health and might even be dangerous.”

Oxidants, for one thing, are the front-line defense against pathogens and cancer cells—so we may not want to squash them categorically. An assessment of 67 studies with nearly 400,000 participants concluded, “We found no evidence to support antioxidant supplements for primary or secondary prevention, [and] Vitamin A, beta-carotene, and vitamin E may increase mortality.”

Ouch.

You can read the Newsweek article and decide for yourself. My point is that we’re often lead down a path we don’t know that much about. Remember when eggs were the devil incarnate? Now researchers sing a milder tune about them: lots of benefits, as well as the concerns. What I remember, a bit shamefully, was the cogent argument I put up against the dangers of sodium. How convinced I was, and how wrong. Well, that girlfriend was right about almost everything, so I should have known.

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Scorching the Memoirs

Tuesday, February 1st, 2011

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“A moment of silence, please,” begins a review by Neil Genzlinger, “for the lost art of shutting up.”

It’s a threatening review of four new memoirs, out this week in the New York Times Book Review. Genzlinger scorches three of the four, praising only a memoir in translation from the German by Johanna Adorjan, about her grandparents’ suicide.

Of a memoir by Heather Havrilesky, Genzlinger writes, “That you had parents and a childhood does not of itself qualify you to write a memoir…. A vast majority of people used to live lives that would draw a C or D if grades were being passed out—not that they were bad lives, just bland. Now, though, practically all of us have somehow gotten the idea that we are B+ or A material; it’s the ‘if it happened to me it must be interesting’ fallacy.”

Of a memoir by Sean Manning he writes, “No one wants to relive your misery…. it’s the reader who will need a hug after choking down this orgy of self-congratulation and self-pity. That’s what happens when immature writers write memoirs: they don’t realize that an ordeal, served up without perceptive or perceptiveness, is merely an ordeal.”

Of a memoir by Allen Shawn he writes, “Imitation runs rampant in memoir land. There can’t be just one book by a bulimic or former war correspondent or spouse of an Alzheimer’s sufferer; there has to be a pile.” Shawn’s memoir, Genzlinger notes, is “stunningly tone-deaf.”

I say threatening because of my own book, which is in bed with dozens of other Alzheimer’s memoirs, probably hundreds by now. Does the world need my memoir, when there are so many others? Genzlinger’s take on the four books he reviews is, “Three of the four did not need to be written, a ratio that probably applies to all memoirs published over the last two decades.”

I take heart, however, from his final paragraph: “Maybe that’s a good rule of thumb: If you didn’t feel you were discovering something as you wrote your memoir, don’t publish it.”

Which was exactly what set me to writing The Last of His Mind. I moved in with my father, hoping, as I cared for him, to keep working on the novel I was writing. Immediately I found that what was happening to my father was more brutal, more fascinating than any fiction, and what I wrote was precisely what Genzlinger calls for: a discovery, an illumination of what Alzheimer’s was doing to my father’s mind. So I escape the scalpel, or hope so. “That’s what makes a good memoir,” Genzlinger writes, “—it’s not a regurgitation of ordinariness or ordeal, not a dart thrown desperately at a trendy topic, but a shared discovery.”

And I remember, in those first months at my father’s, nearly sinking as I watched him lose his nouns, his memories, his reason, what a salvation it was for me to read other Alzheimer’s memoirs. I read them one after another, finding consolation and community in dozens of them.

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