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Mythical dementia and Alzheimerised senility: discrepant and intersecting representations of cognitive decline in later life

Abstract

Dementia is a growing global health concern as worldwide incidence increases amidst population ageing. How people affected by dementia understand the condition is important in influencing their emotional and behavioural responses to it. Improved knowledge of these understandings could inform support that is better tailored to people’s needs. The biomedical research community articulates an understanding of ‘mythical dementia’ comprising a syndrome of cognitive decline caused by numerous discrete neuropathological processes. In this paper, I draw on data from interviews with people affected by dementia to explore how their understandings of dementia differ from the biomedical ‘mythical dementia’. People affected by dementia articulate understandings of ‘Alzheimerised senility’, attributing personal change to a combination of illness, ageing and personality, within a broader context of comorbidity and semi-naturalised decline. These understandings resemble traditional notions of senility, but they are Alzheimerised through the introduction of biomedical ideas. These findings are important in the contemporary political context of early diagnosis promotion.

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Acknowledgements

I wish to Nick Manning, Karen Glaser, Rosanna Lush McCrum and attendees of the GHSM writing retreat for providing helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper.

Funding

This work was supported by the Economic and Social Research Council (Grant No. 1440363).

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Correspondence to James Rupert Fletcher.

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Fletcher, J.R. Mythical dementia and Alzheimerised senility: discrepant and intersecting representations of cognitive decline in later life. Soc Theory Health 18, 50–65 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41285-019-00117-w

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Keywords

  • Dementia
  • Alzheimer’s
  • Senility
  • Diagnosis
  • Illness
  • Disease