study being conducted by one of our universities and the associated medical school. The purpose of the study is to try and develop a test of just nine questions which can be used to diagnose possible early Alzheimer's. It is one of those long term research projects which involves multiple researchers and subjects. I do not know what the cost is but it is probably fairly high.
My father, at the request of his former GP (now retired) is one of the subjects. He has been subjected to a range of psychological and physical tests over the past two years. Several weeks ago he was asked to perform another range of simple psychological tests. The following day the doctor 'phoned me with some questions.
My father is fine. He may be 87 but his memory is still good. He is still able to learn new things. He still reads widely. He still likes to teach young people -and they like to learn from him. The 'big questions' still interest him. I know I am very lucky. Things could be very different.
Yesterday the woman responsible for the overall running of the project 'phoned me with some more questions. I think my answers surprised her.
She began with a simple question, had we found the questions asked intrusive? No - but then we had agreed to take part in the study and indeed it is reassuring to know that someone else outside the family is taking an interest in my father.
After that however things became more interesting. There were things I raised that those who had set up the study had apparently not considered. We came to the issue of who should administer the test, a doctor or a nurse or someone else. My response was that it needs to be someone who knows the person to whom it is being administered. Why? Because it is possible that someone may succeed in passing on the test items but, if someone knows that person, then they will recognise that they are struggling to respond. We have friends who are under a great deal of stress at present. The husband mentioned that, at the moment, his short term memory is appalling. He simply does not remember simple things his wife asks him to do. He is functioning perfectly well in other areas and I suspect that the short term memory is more to do with stress than any early stages of Alzheimer's. A stranger unaware of the problems may see things very differently.
But there were also some other issues. There is the issue of the language you use. My sister's mother-in-law would almost certainly fail the test because her English is deteriorating. She rarely uses English. Remembering something for even a short time in English is not something she would find at all easy. Nevertheless, at present, she functions perfectly well within the limits of her own lifestyle. I suggested the need to consider this and, at very least, Greek and Italian versions of the test. "Hold on, I am writing all this down" I was told. It did not bother me too much. I suspect most able GPs are aware of whether English is the first or second language of their patients.
What was more interesting however was something also language related but quite different.
How long did the developers believe they would be able to use this test, I asked. Why? Because it may be fine for my father's generation and perhaps for a few years below that. When you reach my generation you get the beginnings of the use of calculators and then computers.
Most of my generation probably know their number facts, their 'times tables' even if they have forgotten how to use a logarithm or prove a theorem. Remembering telephone numbers is becoming less certain. They are stored in the mobile 'phone. There is no need to remember them.
And it is about there that things start to change quite dramatically. Memory needs are changing. The mobile 'phone, the computer, the little electronic notebooks of various sorts and all the other electronic devices designed to make lives 'easier' are actually changing the way we remember things, if we remember them at all.
The test being developed by the university researchers will not be able to be used for very long at all before it needs to be changed and redeveloped to account for technology. When, in a few short years, they reach the generation that sends a constant stream of brief text messages the test will need to be very different indeed.
I left the researcher to think about it. My conversation with her made me even more determined to remember things. So far I have been lucky - perhaps because of what some would think of as ill-luck. I find it difficult to physically write things down. I find it impossible to use the tiny keys on the 'mobile phone so I simply must remember things. Of course I forget things sometimes. We all do. Now, what was I saying...?