Julianne Moore in Still Alice. Sony Pictures Classics – Women

It is International Women’s Month, and we would like to pay tribute to women with this piece on the film Still Alice, and the depiction of Julianne Moore as a linguistics professor at Columbia University struggling through early onset of Alzheimer’s Disease

 

“My yesterdays are disappearing,

my tomorrows are uncertain,

so what do I live for?

I live for each day. I live in the moment.”

– Lisa Genova, neuroscientist & author, “Still Alice”

 

Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) had just turned 50, celebrating with a simple dinner with her husband (Alec Baldwin) and her children Ana (Kate Bosworth), Lydia (Kristen Stewart), and Tom (Hunter Parrish). She was a happy wife and mother, and a fulfilled professional. And she was healthy. Or so she thought.

In her usual routine of running around Columbia University where she was a respected linguistics professor, she gets lost. In her online word games she plays with her daughter Ana, she stumbles on her words. And then the devastating news: she had early onset Alzheimer’s Disease.

How can it happen to someone still relatively young, intelligent, who regularly exercises not just her body but her mind?

According to the Alzheimer’s Organization 2014 Facts and Figures, two thirds of Americans with Alzheimer’s are women. Worldwide, the figures are not far off. And every year, the numbers increase.

The film, adapted from author Lisa Genova, a neuroscientist, and directed by Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer, focuses on the rapid progress of this cruel disease, and how Alice copes with it, silently terrified, oftentimes optimistic and hopeful. The role gave Julianne Moore the Academy Award for Best Actress, and in her acceptance speech, she mentions that she is thrilled that this film is “able to shine a light on Alzheimer’s.”

Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia, a disorder characterized by a decline in memory, thinking and behavior skills which affects one’s ability to perform everyday activities. Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60 to 80 percent dementia cases. In Alzheimer’s, the damage to the neurons may impair one’s ability to carry out basic bodily functions such as walking and swallowing. It can eventually lead to being bedridden, totally dependent on others for round-the-clock care, and yes, it can be fatal.

What is worse as shown in the film is that Alice’s children are also at risk of getting the disease.

Dr. Kian Bee Ng, a neuroscientist who studies human brain networks in relation to learning and environment, calls this type of diseases the Familial Alzheimer’s Disease or FAD, which is genetically linked where children of those with the disease, with an almost 100% truth, will develop the same problem when the time comes. While there is no known cure for the disease, Dr Kian Bee mentions that many efforts are being made for research to find drugs that specifically treat the disease. In fact, he adds, even US President Obama has led the calls for better healthcare by allotting millions of dollars for Precision Medicine. The Precision Medicine Initiative is an innovative approach to disease prevention that studies each individual’s genes, environment, and lifestyles , to better predict the most effective treatment.

In a PBS video of Lisa Genova’s interview on the film she laments that neuro diseases and disorders are often “ignored, feared, or misunderstood,” But being a novelist with a neuroscience training can be an advantage, as this has become her platform for more awareness of this devastating and deadly neurogenerative disease, which is still widely under-reported.

Dr Kian Bee, who appreciates the film in its entirety, adds though that what lacked in the film is the role of the caregivers, in this case, the family members, who have to take time to care for Alice. Although the husband does patiently spend time with her, and her youngest child as well, the effect it has on the caregiver can take its toll on them. There is a strain for someone caring for Alzheimer’s, and as alz.org writes, “there are currently 15.5 million caregivers providing 17.7 billion hours of unpaid care in the U.S., often at the detriment of their own health. The physical and emotional impact of dementia care giving resulted in an estimated $9.3 billion in increased healthcare costs for Alzheimer’s caregivers in 2013.”

And this is where the tragedy is seen. It is a real fear, something we cannot say “it is just in the movies.” When it strikes a loved one, it is real. The tragedy is heightened because each of us somehow thinks we should be invincible, that we are consciously aware of such possibilities so we do what we can — exercise our body and our brain, eat right, do crosswords, equip ourselves more with information. And we hope it does not happen to us or someone dear to us. We hope that we will not get to the time that we will say, “at some point (with Alzheimer’s), there would simply be no point.”

 

Gina is a writer and single mother of two, and recently turned half a century, just like Alice Howard. She advocates healthy eating, exercise and brain training. Her memory, thankfully, is still fully functional, and wishes it stays that way. Her favorite line in the film is said by Alice: “The mother in her believed that the love she had for her daughter was safe from the mayhem of her mind, because it lived in her heart.”

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