One of the great scourges today is Alzheimer’s. At present, over six million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s. That is 1 in 9 people age 65 and older and 11.3% of the senior population. Since 2000, deaths from Alzheimer’s have increased by 145%. The burden of Alzheimer’s disease affects many of us in various ways – financially, emotionally, and spiritually.
Medical science is still looking for the causes of Alzheimer’s. There is a genetic connection, and Alzheimer’s also seems to be a product of environmental factors. God does not cause it, and so far, it appears to be untreatable. One of the blessings of Alzheimer’s is that the afflicted person is not aware of what is happening to them. In most cases, they do not recognize family or friends or what has taken place, good or bad, in the past.
I have seen that when we apply Christian principles, people with Alzheimer’s respond positively. First Thessalonians 5: 14 tells us to “comfort the feebleminded, support the weak and be patient with all men.” Alzheimer’s patients respond to kindness and love. As Christians, we have the unique perspective of putting the past behind us and accepting people where they are – not where they were 25 years ago.
If your view of life is “survival of the fittest,” you will have very little empathy for someone living with Alzheimer’s. That person is no longer among the fittest and may be a burden. On the other hand, if your view is that all humans have value and God will bless us for serving those in need, the burden of Alzheimer’s disease becomes an opportunity.
Matthew 25:21-40 finds Jesus talking about the blessing of serving others. Verse 36 speaks of Christians reaching out to help someone who is sick or in prison. Alzheimer’s is a kind of prison and is certainly a sickness. The need for us to bring love, care, and relief applies as much to an Alzheimer’s patient as to anyone else.
Researchers at the University of California – Berkeley have been studying the ability of birds to use a language skill called “fast mapping.” Until now, only humans have shown this ability. However, scientists are discovering zebra finch memory mapping skills.
The researchers examined 20 birds to see what they could remember and how they used the retained information. The researchers found that the finches could identify their mates’ calls 100% of the time. Furthermore, they could identify the calls of every member of their flock for more than a month. They could even do this when they heard the calls of the other finches as few as five times. Even more interesting is that they demonstrated these skills even with changing calls.
It doesn’t take a lot of thinking to see how valuable this memory ability is. For example, birds that flock together need to be able to recognize every member of their flock. Scientists are using this information to study other animals. Memory is not dependent on the size of the brain. The zebra finch is a very small bird, and some large animals do not seem to have the memory ability that these finches demonstrate.
Human memory is a subject of intense study, with dementia and Alzheimer’s increasingly becoming a problem that affects us all. Understanding the brain’s design that allows memory storage is essential to improving our ability to store and recall information. Perhaps the zebra finch memory mapping skills can help us understand more of how God designed brains to work.
Recently a critic suggested that if God were so great, He wouldn’t allow dementia and Alzheimer’s to be a part of the human experience. There is no question that Alzheimer’s and dementia are a growing problem in today’s world. Those of us who have had family members develop these disabilities can testify how hard it is for family and loved ones. Is the inability of a mother to recognize her children or husband a failure in human brain design?
The Alzheimer’s Association has released data showing that one in three seniors dies with Alzheimer’s or other dementia. Since 2000, the number of deaths due to Alzheimer’s has more than doubled. It kills more people than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined. Almost two-thirds of Americans living with Alzheimer’s are women, and more than six million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s. We don’t know all of the causes and contributors to Alzheimer’s. Still, we know enough to tell us that Alzheimer’s and dementia are related to our environment, our growing life expectancy, and our lifestyles.
In the past, people just didn’t live long enough to develop Alzheimer’s. Life expectancy brings many age-related health issues. For that reason, Alzheimer’s and dementia are a growing problem. Diet and physical activity are related to Alzheimer’s. In modern life, we do a lot of sitting and consume many foods that are not good for our brains. The same conditions that have caused heart disease and diabetes also produce Alzheimer’s and dementia. God did not design humans to sit behind a desk with no exercise and eat foods that negatively affect our brains. The Alzheimer’s Association has shown that multiple vaccinations for flu and pneumonia reduce the risk for Alzheimer’s.
Our brains are incredible devices that allow us to survive and do amazing things. We clearly see God’s design in how our brains work, but human activity and choices have contributed to a decline in brain health. Alzheimer’s and dementia are a growing problem but not an indication that God failed in His design. It shows that the neglect of our brains and our choices in life have caused problems that prevent our incredible biological computers from handling all the data we want them to retain. We must take care of the good things God has given us, and our brains are among the most important.
One question we hear from a wide range of people is, “Why did God do this to me?” My answer to that statement is always the same, “God didn’t do it to you!!” James 1:13 says, “Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted by God. God cannot be tempted with evil, and He does not tempt any man.” James speaks of moral temptation, but the principle laid down is true in a wide variety of areas. James says it is our own lust that causes us to sin, which ultimately leads to death. The fact is that every bad thing that happens to us came from someone’s lust. It may be a lust for money, for power, or for dominance. But it is not because God chose to give us something bad. God is not the enemy.
One of the most frustrating examples is mental problems, especially dementia and Alzheimer’s. What can be more painful than having your own mother or spouse not know who you are? It is especially difficult when a disease like Alzheimer’s happens to some people and not to others. I recently stood next to a woman whose mother didn’t know her. That mother was an elder’s wife. She had blessed countless others and had been a teacher of children both in Bible classes and in the public schools.
In the same room was a foul-mouthed, abusive woman who spent much of her life in prison. She was busily writing a legal defense of why her current conviction on selling porn pictures of children should be thrown out of court. She was the same age and yet was very capable and mentally alert. I engaged her in an academic discussion of why quantum theory didn’t invalidate Genesis, and she knew her subject.
“Where is God?” my friend asked as we left the facility. My response was that He was with her mother because even though her physical body was with us, in my opinion, her spiritual self was not. God is not the enemy.
The fact remains that we need to understand why scenarios like this one happen. A recent study of 131,000 people in London, England, aged 50-79, showed that high exposure to nitrogen dioxide, a common pollutant in cities, more than doubled the incidence of Alzheimer’s. Also, exposure to particulate matter from traffic, even in small levels, increased the incidence rate of Alzheimer’s. High concentrations more than doubled it.
More and more studies of irresponsible disposal of chemicals in rivers, lakes, and oceans is causing the worst of human diseases. The London study also showed that ozone reduced the incidence rate of Alzheimer’s. Ozone is part of the structure of the atmosphere which reduces the amount of ultraviolet light from the Sun reaching Earth’s surface. Most of us will remember the problem of the atmosphere’s ozone hole a few years ago, which endangered life on the planet. It was caused by manufactured chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). That led to a worldwide ban on CFC production in 1987.
I am reminded of the old statement in the Pogo comic strip by Walt Kelly. Pogo said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us!” We reap what we sow. It may be by our own actions, but for many of us, the pain is from the greed and selfishness of others – but it isn’t from God. God is not the enemy.
The current craze on the use of marijuana has convinced many people that it is a miracle drug that will take care of all health issues. Some claim that it can not only help in cases of mental illness and dementia but that it also can cure cancer, Crone’s disease, Alzheimer’s, and a host of other common maladies. There are medical uses of components of marijuana that are promising and may be refined and used as pharmaceuticals in years ahead. What many are ignoring is negative data on marijuana.
1) Since marijuana was legalized in Colorado, there has been an 8% rise in homelessness. The Colorado Division of Criminal Justice has shown that the legalization of marijuana has attracted transient people to the state.
2) The Colorado Health Department has shown a 400% increase in children younger than eight years of age who have been poisoned by high potency cannabis leading to emergency room visits.
3) Children ages 1 to 13 have been exposed to second-hand marijuana smoke in thousands of homes.
4) A study by the University of Colorado of 639 teenagers treated in 2015 in one Colorado hospital system either had cannabis in their urine or told a doctor they had used it.
5) The Highway Loss Data Institute has reported that Colorado, Oregon, and Washington have seen a 3% jump in auto collision claims since the legalization of marijuana in those states.
The theme of the December 2017 issue of the Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation is “Understanding and Helping Those with Alzheimer’s.” The American Scientific Affiliation is an organization made up of scientists holding advanced science degrees who are believers in Jesus. This issue brings up questions regarding Alzheimer’s disease and God.
The World Health Organization reports that there are 47.5 million people with dementia worldwide. Alzheimer’s accounts for 60 to 70% of those. The WHO also tells us that 7.7 million new cases are added each year. The National Institute of Aging ranks Alzheimer’s as the third leading cause of death for older people–behind heart disease and cancer. There is still much that science does not understand about Alzheimer’s. Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga writes that “dementia including Alzheimer’s may simply be the result of our brains living beyond what they were designed for.”
The question concerning Alzheimer’s disease and God becomes whether God’s design is flawed or whether Alzheimer’s is something humans have brought on themselves. First, we need to understand that there are two forms of Alzheimer’s. One occurs early in life and is called familial Alzheimer’s. It is a rare disease accounting for less than 5% of all Alzheimer’s cases. The more common late-onset Alzheimer’s is associated with a gene called apolipoprotein E which is involved in metabolizing fats in the body. Studies have linked diet and environmental contaminants to Alzheimer’s. It now appears that Alzheimer’s is not a single disorder, but that there are many forms with many different causes. Obviously, that makes identifying the specific cause and treating patients very difficult.
The bigger question is how we handle people with Alzheimer’s. One solution is euthanasia at early stages of the disease. Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who developed a lethal injection system as a means for assisted suicide, promoted this view. The first patient he euthanized by his system was a 54-year-old Alzheimer’s patient. Peter Singer, who is the head of the ethics department at Princeton University, has promoted this view on an academic level.
Because the American Scientific Affiliation is a Christian organization, the euthanasia alternative is dismissed by the magazine. Instead, it suggests ways that faith can help patients and caregivers deal with the symptoms of Alzheimer’s.