Boomers’ Little Secret

At first I blamed the problems I was experiencing last fall on aging. I will be 60 on my next birthday, which is about a month away. When I talked to my friends, they all reinforced the idea that what was happening was normal. If I said that I always lose my car keys, they said, "Everybody loses their car keys." It's the famous over-50 treasure hunt: put the keys in your left hand, count up to 10, now try to find them. Baby boomers are approaching old age with extreme reluctance. We say 60 is the new 40—but we lie.

I was quite happy to blame the lapses on brain-cell loss due to aging, convincing myself that my brain would soon rewire itself and I'd get up to speed again. I did a very successful U.S. book-signing tour and had breakfast at the White House. It was absolutely great. Then I came back to England and had one particularly bad day. Lots of things happened at once, all demanding my attention, and my brain was beginning to flatline. I knew there was something more than just aging here.

My doctor arranged for me to go to Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge, which had a specialist unit. I was told I had a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer's. It starts at the back of the brain, rather than the front. There is some mild advantage to this. As I understand it, it means I will remain me, coherently me, for longer. So there's a stroke of luck, right?

It's already become clear to me, however, that I've begun to suffer from a lack of visual acuity. I can glance down at the table and not see my mobile phone—though if I look at the table because I know the mobile phone is there, then I will see it. I'd known in a subconscious way for about two years that this was happening because I'd been getting more and more edgy about driving. I was arranging my life so that my wife or my assistant or a taxi took me where I needed to go. Now I've given up my license. If I don't see the mobile phone on the table, I won't see the little girl in the pedestrian crossing.

Within a few days of my diagnosis, I realized that there were about eight people I had to tell. And if I told eight people, in real life that would be telling the world. So I just announced it.

What puzzles me is that people say I was very brave to do this. Why? I hadn't done anything wrong, I hadn't committed a crime; no one knows how you get Alzheimer's. I have heard 20 different theories. It didn't seem to me to be brave. But then, there's that old tenet of magic: before you can kill the demon you must say its true name aloud.

When I was a young man just starting out in journalism, people used to die of what was known as "a long illness." That ghastly phrase continued for a long time until a famous newscaster died and his family said he had died of cancer. Since then, cancer research has blossomed because it came out of the dark. We now talk about cancer using the language of warfare. It's the fight against cancer. People are survivors; they are battlers. The war against that demon is not won, but we are winning battles.

The struggle against Alzheimer's remains a furtive kind of thing, a guerrilla war waged by a small band in semi-darkness. This is partly because it is usually a disease of old age. The very word "dementia" frightens people. But I am finding that practically everyone I meet knows someone with Alzheimer's. It's this big hidden plague, and we should start talking about it fast. Alzheimer's cases are due to double in the next generation. It is a disease that leaves you a shell of yourself. The buoyantly healthy baby boomers are staying alive long enough to drop right into its lair. If they don't get their asses in gear, that is what will await them.

I have given $1 million to the Alzheimer's Research Trust. People are used to giving to cancer research. I would not like to usurp that wonderful impulse, but I would like people to remember that Alzheimer's is there too—while they still can remember, that is. My father died in the arms of Morpheus at 86. He had cancer, but he knew who we all were, almost to the very end. I envy him.