Reading your medical tea leaves… plus unexpected humor

First, what to make of the spinal tap/Alzheimer’s news…

If you missed it,  researchers reported that doing a spinal tap—a lumbar puncture—and examining the withdrawn fluid for certain proteins can tell who has or will have Alzheimer’s Disease or AD. Last week, enthusiastic commentators fantasized about diagnostic spinal taps becoming as common as mammograms or colonoscopies. Maybe there would be specialty spinal tap clinics. All in all, the media greeted the spinal tap method of obtaining an AD diagnosis as a great step forward.

What got lost in the reporting

One important thing got lost in the headlines and articles—the opinions of consumers. We cottontops are not enthusiastic about spinal taps for any reason, least of all to tell us we are doomed to get a disease with no cure.

Also, spinal taps have a risk, persistent headaches being one of them. And, like other medical procedures, they cost, though a consumer will search in vain on the net for their actual cost, so removed are we from the financing of our medical care. But risks and costs are not the biggest objections I hear from readers.

Their reaction can be summed up this way: Are those researchers nuts? Do they think we want to ruin our present lives with worry over a downer future? Will we want to condemn ourselves to Death Row with a spinal tap?

Well, the standard answer to our questioning is this: knowing ahead of time about AD gives us a chance to prepare for the times to come. But I say we should be prepared with wills, medical directives and plans for our old age no matter what. We shouldn’t need predicted disasters to get us off the dime.

Neglected: Cause and prevention

Truth to tell, it is probably a great help to researchers to have more stable ground, a biomarker spinal fluid test, under their feet, but what I want to know is why the main thrust of research is aimed at a cure. Why not a big push on finding the cause of AD? All things have a cause. What causes AD? And then, how can AD be prevented? But there is profit in selling drugs and procedures once the AD horse is kicking around in the brain barn, and prevention is not likely to inflate anybody’s bottom line.

Anyhow, that’s a consumer take on one of the many unfolding AD research stories. Stay tuned because it’s going to go on and on, including the fascinating possibility of a vaccine.

Humor lives in unexpected places

Last, who would have thunk that people would be able to laugh at Alzheimer’s, but, of course, we as a nation do have a broad funny bone. Jokes like this float around the web:

Doctor: Mr. Green, I don’t like telling you this, but you have cancer and Alzheimer’s.

Mr. Green: Well, at least I don’t have cancer.

There are also many quick one-liners about the benefits of memory loss:

All the wonderful new people you meet every day

A new bed partner every night.

We Americans evidently can find humor in all situations. Mark Twain would be proud.


  1. Well, of course researchers don’t want to find the CAUSE of alzheimers, because that might mean we could prevent it. Finding a CURE will mean that some big pharma company will make big bucks when we all buy it. Prevention is too often ignored, in medicine, with money going to research treatment. As long as we have a condition, we keep paying for the treatment over and over.

  2. The best argument — and maybe the only good one — I’ve seen for having the early diagnosis is stated in this letter to the editor which was published in the New York Times today, 8/18/10.

    To the Editor:

    Re “In Spinal Test, Early Warning on Alzheimer’s” (front page, Aug. 10):

    Seven years ago, my husband, after manifesting mild cognitive impairment for two to three years, received a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.

    The good news is that his condition, in part because it was detected early, has deteriorated slowly. The sad news is that we didn’t adapt our lives to the condition (denial is incredibly easy in the early stages of Alzheimer’s) when there was ample time to do it.

    If I could take a test that would predict with accuracy whether I will develop Alzheimer’s within the next 10 years, I would run, not walk, to the testing facility. Foreknowledge of the condition, especially now that I know how quickly it can rob its victims of reason and adaptability, would alter everything from my estate planning to my travel schedule.

    The implications of this testing are not to be underestimated. Alzheimer’s may be incurable, but advance planning for it could go a long way toward alleviating the shock, uncertainty and stress that affect its patients and their families.

    Margaret Earl Cooper
    New Canaan, Conn., Aug. 12, 2010

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