I am a medical anthropologist at Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine, where I teach medical students and study Alzheimer disease (AD). As a social scientist, I seek to use my platform in academic medicine to inspire the public—not to mention the medical students I teach—to think about AD not as a “downstream” disease event that befalls older folks but, instead, as an “upstream” issue that is relevant to people of all ages. For a condition so deeply and unambiguously inscribed as a “late-life disease” in the modern mind, it will take more than facts alone to shift people to a life-span conception of brain health—one in which such social, cultural, and environmental factors as diet, physical and cognitive activity, diabetes and heart disease/stroke, head injuries, toxic exposures, and diminished social networks are relevant risk factors from the womb forward. I believe that engaging people aesthetically is crucial to instigating any meaningful change in the way our culture approaches brain health.
It is in this spirit that I created Flux and Efflux of the Aging Brain, which presents the organ as the complex and largely inscrutable entity that it is. Though rife with abstract shapes, the brain also includes elements of a water table map with snaking streams and sloping elevation contours. The symbolic “public health” meaning I intended to convey is that insults to the brain at any stage of life—whether in the form of traumatic brain injuries, an unhealthy diet, exposures to heavy metals such as lead and mercury, etc.—percolate downward into the deeper cellular reservoirs of the organ, creating conditions that can damage neurons and impair cognitive functioning. Much like the rivers and streams in our natural environments, the brain is a fragile living system and deserves our utmost protection.
It is therefore my hope that thinking about AD as the end result of a “life-span process” rather than a “disease event” will become a gateway for a deeper consideration not only of commonsense preventive measures we can all take, but also of what it means to be a member of a community, to recognize our shared vulnerability, to have intergenerational responsibility, and to care for those more profoundly affected by brain aging than ourselves. True hope for progress against AD can emerge from strengthening our local communities to support healthy brains and bodies far more powerfully than from the exaggerated promise of a miracle remedy.
Acknowledgments: The author thanks Deb Tomazin for her assistance in scanning and preparing the artwork for publication.