The Death of a Friend

One of my best friends just passed away. We went way back a long way. He was a big, funny, at times loud, lovable guy. He loved a party and being with him always meant (innocent) trouble. He was an accomplished professional that went into business and succeeded beyond any of our wildest dreams. He had a beautiful, loving family and an increasing brood of grandchildren.

Three years ago, my friend was diagnosed and quickly expressed full-blown Alzheimer’s disease. This was not my first experience with this disease, but what was new to me was the speed of the progression. In a manner of just a few months, he went from some forgetfulness, to not being able to remember his son during his wedding reception. But he still remembered me.

Alzheimer’s is usually associated with age, as are many other dementias. But in my friend’s case, it was not just age. Other members of his family suffered with the disease. Alzheimer’s must be the cruelest disease – it robs us of the memories of everything and everyone we love.  It robs us of our connections. It robs us of our humanity.

As a scientist and engineer, I am frustrated with our inability to understand, let alone cure, this terrible disease. What triggers it? How much is genetic? How much is environmental? How much of it is our destiny as we live longer? What is the role of the infamous plaques? Is there a way to predict who will get it? Even if we solve the science of the disease, more significant questions emerge. What do we do when we learn we are getting it? Do we really want to know? What are the ethical and public health questions involved?

Many of our professors are engaged in trying to understand Alzheimer’s disease, and more broadly to understand the most complicated of all organs: the brain. Professors like Audrey Duarte of the School of Psychology focuses on aging, memory, and cognitive decline. Some years ago, I remember asking her what, if anything, she recommended to maintain an active and healthy brain. She told me that regular exercise is the number one preventative action one may take, which I try to do regularly. I also recall her saying that there was some evidence that forcing yourself to use your non-dominant arm and hand–a challenge to your fine motor coordination­–was a helpful exercise for the brain. Since then, I have been shaving and brushing my teeth with my left arm!

Professor Anabelle Singer of the Wallace H. Coulter School of Biomedical Engineering is experimenting with promising therapies that stimulate the brain with flickering lights and sound of a particular frequency that seem to reduce protein build-up and plaques in the brain, which may have a causal effect on the disease.

We are lucky to live at a time where the pace of discovery and the creation of new knowledge is simply staggering. Working at a place like Georgia Tech, and knowing many like Professors Duarte and Singer, is indeed exhilarating and fills one with hope that we will solve the many problems plaguing society and that we will continue to cure and manage presently intractable diseases. From my perspective the goal is not to live forever, but simply to have a reasonable quality of life all the way to the moment of death.

The fruits of the work of Professors Duarte and Singer and others will come too late for my dear friend. I am hopeful that they will, nevertheless, begin to crack the mystery of the terrible  disease that is Alzheimer’s, saving many of us from of being robbed, in our final years, of the memories of people, events and places that are the essence of our lives as human beings.

Rafael L. Bras

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