If you’ve become a parent this year, there’s apparently a one-in-three chance that your newborn will contract dementia somewhere over the course of his or her life. This alarming statistic, deriving from a study commissioned by Alzheimer’s Research UK and conducted by the Office of Health Economics, is no doubt a cause for serious concern. 850,000 people in Britain are already afflicted with various manifestations of this debilitating condition, so it’s more than a little galling to hear that around a third of the estimated 77,000,000 people living in Britain in, say, 2050 will have to suffer memory loss, cognitive impairment and numerous psychiatric disturbances. Yet as grave as the warning undoubtedly is, the report’s admission that this explosion will primarily be a function of the increasing average age of the UK population suggests that the charity’s talk of a “looming national health crisis” is fundamentally misplaced.
Of course, the development of new treatments and drugs like Solanezumab, for example, is entirely welcome, since the symptoms of Alzheimer’s undoubtedly have the power to hobble lives. Nonetheless, because the underlying driver of the disease’s spread will be age, the amelioration or eradication of its symptoms will ultimately amount to little more than kicking the can down the road, this road being the insoluble problem of death. Even if enough funding is pumped into dementia research and care to remove it as a health issue, the escalating frailties of age and an aging population would entail that other symptoms of mortality and senescence would emerge to replace those of Alzheimer’s. Moreover, because there would be similar (or perhaps even greater) population growth in a Britain where dementia was no longer a worry, the proportions of the elderly affected with other, ‘replacement’ conditions would similarly be enough to constitute a ‘national health crisis’ as Alzheimer’s Research has defined it.
To put it more simply, our growing old has to take a certain form and our deaths have to have a certain cause. Ergo, the explosion of the UK population means that more of us will age according to particular forms and die because of particular causes, regardless of whether dementia is involved. If not dementia, we will find ourselves blighted by obesity, diabetes, arthritis, cancer, vision loss, hearing loss, osteoporosis, congestive heart failure, Parkinson’s disease, or one of the many other conditions associated with advancing age. Given that seniority almost always throws up one or more of these unfortunate ailments, there’s little reason to believe that, if we eliminate dementia, we won’t be confronted by other common expressions of the deteriorating human body. Yet the panicked view that dementia taxes us with a “looming national health crisis” is predicated on such a belief, as though dementia itself were the root of the problem, not simply one of its tokens.
What’s more, this alarmist misinterpretation of what is actually an aging crisis isn’t held only by Alzheimer’s Research UK, but by the media and the population at large. An editorial in The Independent mirrored the charity’s sense of urgency and peril regarding the predicted growth in dementia, arguing that “[g]overnments must do more” and that merely doubling the funding for related research, as David Cameron vowed to do three years ago, “will yield only limited results”. More dramatically, The Daily Express framed the NGO’s report by warning that “Britain faces a dementia timebomb“, while a recent article in the no-less sensationalist Guardian repeated “timebomb” in its title and even went so far as counselling businesses on how they can accommodate those touched in one way or another by Alzheimer’s. Even with emerging research to the effect that such a ‘timebomb’ is nowhere near as grave as previously imagined, these outlets all persist in reinforcing the notion that Britain as a nation must ramp up its efforts to suppress the threat posed by dementia, otherwise a catastrophe will befall us. They believe that if we fail to act on this terrible challenge to national health, millions of aging individuals will be deprived of the comfortable twilight years they were promised earlier in their lives, and that the country will be burdened with the immense costs of caring for them.
The thing is, millions of aging individuals will be deprived of a comfortable retirement, and the country will be burdened with the immense costs of caring for them, even if dementia is neutralized as a threat and these same individuals live for an extra five years. That’s because, as acknowledged by the articles publicizing the Alzheimer’s Research UK’s study, the population as a whole is getting older, with more people than ever drawing nearer to that point of no return where accumulated faults and imperfections in the human body’s reproduction of itself eventually throw them off a final precipice. Yet rather than acknowledge the hard demographic problems of an increasing population and an increasingly mature population, this whole predicament has been superficially diverted into the service and nourishment of the questionable but increasingly popular assumption that all diseases can be eradicated.
Such an assumption forms the basis of a Cult of Immortality that’s sweeping developed economies. When precisely this cult emerged in history isn’t entirely clear, but it’s tempting to link its appearance to the liberalism, consumerism and individualism that’s been in ascendance since the end of the Second World War. All of these currents — the rising preoccupation with individual freedoms, the pursuit of material finery, and the rampant self-absorption that inevitably follows the dissolution of more traditional communities — feed into the idea that people could and should be free of all limitations on themselves and their actions. Liberalism teaches them that external constraints on their pursuit of happiness are a violation of their inalienable rights, consumerism dupes them into supposing that they have unlimited choice when it comes to realizing such happiness, and individualism conditions them to think that their existence is more important than anything else in the world.
Added together, these related trends make it all-but impossible for we children of this age to reconcile the hard fact of death with the impression that we can have whatever we want and do whatever we want. Most of us understandably don’t relish death and its infringement of our rights, yet the impossibility of avoiding it presents a flagrant contradiction of our liberalist-consumerist-individualist worldview. Unfortunately, rather than diluting or qualifying this worldview, we foolishly attempt to deny death. We don’t renounce it explicitly of course, for within our secularized milieu this would equal grounds for institutionalization. Instead, we forswear it implicitly, by naively striving to expunge all traces and indicators of it.
This quest is embodied in all the cosmetics we buy, all the fashions we wear, all the nostalgia we consume, all the elderly and vulnerable people we ship off to human storage containers, and lastly, all the age-dependent illnesses we endeavour to nullify, as if they were epidemics that could genuinely be annihilated with only some more effort and coordination.
Try as we might, however, we’ll never efface all age-related diseases and ‘health crises’, no matter what noble charities like Alzheimer’s Research UK might imply with their warnings. They have an agenda to pursue, so even if the cause they’re fighting for is an incontrovertibly laudable one, they’ll almost always narrow the issue in a manner that, while serving their donors and beneficiaries, may obscure the bigger picture for the rest of us. In this case, the bigger picture is composed partly by our growing and aging population, who will always beleaguer the nation’s health system with dilemmas, regardless of the particular form these take. On the other hand, it’s also composed by the aforementioned ‘Cult of Immortality’, which at bottom is the Cult of Self taken to its logical conclusion, and which hoodwinks its members into supposing that they might somehow cheat, if not death, then at least the process of dying.
That said, there’s no reason not to call for more funding for the treatment of dementia. The condition directly and indirectly reduces the quality of life of millions in the UK, so any upswing in relevant research and targeted care is only to be encouraged. Yet once again, the predicament highlighted by Alzheimer’s Research UK’s study is not really about dementia itself. No, it’s more about governments who don’t know how to manage aging demographics and aging demographics who are far too attached to the Cults of Self and Immortality to accept ‘crises’ as inevitable. Hence, it’s only when the United Kingdom works out how exactly it will administer its widening population and pay for its grayer citizens that the requisite funding will reach those who are maturing with less dignity than they would’ve preferred. Also, it’s only when we reform an economic system predicated on the lie that ‘we can have it all’ that the requisite levelheadedness will reach those who are alarmed by the death which, one day, will prove they can’t have it all.