Neurophilosophy

Iron Lady’s brain is rusting

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has dementia.

In her forthcoming book, which is serialized in the Mail on Sunday (a paper which, I hasten to add, I do not read), Carol Thatcher reveals that her mother’s mental faculties have been in decline for the past 7 years:

When she learned Latin at school, she absorbed the vocabulary and declensions with her blotting-paper brain. It was a skill honed to perfection during her chemistry degree at Oxford, when scientific equations added yet another dimension to an already orderly mind.

Whereas previously you would never have had to say anything to her twice, because she’d already filed it away in her formidable memory bank, Mum started asking the same questions over and over again, unaware she was doing so.

It might be something innocuous – such as ‘What time is my car coming?’ or ‘When am I going to the hairdresser?’ – but the fact she needed to repeat them opened a new and frightening chapter in our lives.

Comments

  1. #1 Damien Riley
    August 26, 2008

    I find dementia to be such a quicksand illness. It must be horrible to suffer through both for her and her family. The brain is still amazing through it though, robbing Peter to pay Paul when it can. I’m amazed at how good the brain does on its way out.

  2. #2 Hesistant Iconoclast
    August 26, 2008

    Frankly, Mo, the headline of this post was amusing enough to win your own contest. You should thus treat yourself to a recently-published science book. :)

    Oh crap, I spoke about the contest. Guess I disqualified myself. ;)

  3. #3 Dunc
    August 27, 2008

    Only 7 years? If you ask me, she’s been barking since the late ’70s…

  4. #4 csrster
    August 27, 2008

    I believe they first realised something was seriously wrong one day when she unexpectedly showed an iota of compassion, humanity and humility.

  5. #5 Polomint38
    August 27, 2008

    I think she must have had dementia in the 80′s. It would explain her policies.

  6. #6 Joe D
    August 27, 2008

    This raises the interesting philosophical question of “when does death occur?” — is it, as tradition has it, when the body switches off; or is it when the essence of the individual (thoughts, feelings, actions) are gone?

    Or, in other words, when do we “sing and dance through the night”?

  7. #7 DrCogSci
    August 27, 2008

    This is such a sad thing to hear. For all the vitriol levelled at her, Baroness Thatcher was a remarkable leader. If nothing else, it is terrible to think of such a formidable mind falling victim to dementia.

    Say what you will, the loss of a person of character is a terrible shame in the barren, tractless waste of contempory politics.

  8. #8 Hesitant Iconoclast
    August 28, 2008

    Polomint38′s comment is especially poignant in light of a new article on ScienceDaily today: Even Without Dementia, Mental Skills Decline Years Before Death.

    It isn’t very surprising that senior citizens generally experience decline anyway, it is interesting how this new longitudinal study shows how some skills can decline upto 15 years before death.

    Without being cruel to Thatcher, one can only wonder how much of an effect her mental decline could have had on her political savvy, and indeed for all politicians of a certain age. And by contrast, this makes the new breed of “younger” politicians look more impressive. Think Tony Blair (elected PM at age 43) and David Miliband (age 43). It is easy to think that younger politicians may be criticised for insufficient or lack of political experience, but at least we can surmise that they are reasonably sharp enough (cognitively speaking) to handle the pressures and the issues.

  9. #9 carolyn13
    August 31, 2008

    I don’t think I’ve ever told you this, Mo, but one of the reasons I read your blog is because my mother-in-law has Alzheimer’s. Her mother had it too and my husband is somewhat terrified that he might go that way as well. Your posts on the subject have helped me understand the disease.

    I was devastated when my mother-in-law was first diagnosed. My own mother had died only a few months before and Mary Ann was a great comfort to me. It was very reassuring to have her to lean on, the last older female in my life.

    I couldn’t bring myself to see much of her those first few months. I have a horror of brain damage and how it can wipe away the personality. Eventually family obligations made me spend time with her.

    She asks the same questions every few minutes, says the same jokes, shows me the things that are exciting to her that day over and over again but she’s still in there, that loving lady that I’ve known for so many years. The mind isn’t the same but the person remains. Sometimes she even still shows the wisdom that only we tired old people have acquired through experience.

    So to answer Joe D above, you aren’t dead until you’re dead. Everything else is just a part of the transformation, the process that is life.

  10. #10 Kalia's little brother
    September 1, 2008

    Note to my friends: when I become incapacitated, I do not wish to have my brain compared to blotting paper.

  11. #11 Ghostrider
    September 10, 2008

    “vengeance is mine” saith The Lord!

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