Charlatans have shaped history. We are repeating a cycle of people selling us false hopes. But one example stands above all others, and that is the story of a Buddhist monk named Xu Fu. While in the process of selling immortality to the first emperor of China, Xu Fu ran away and inadvertently created modern Japan.
Ying Zheng consolidated all of China in 221 BC but failed to accept that he was like all other human beings, mortal. So he did everything in his power to stay alive and aimed to gain immortality. It was this fixation – helped by ingesting mercury – which would eventually kill him at the young age of 49. Just before he died, however, he sent our protagonist Xu Fu to look for the elixir of life.
After equipping Xu Fu with 60 ships and around 5,000 crew members – 3,000 virgin boys and girls – Xu Fu set out on his search for the mystical Penglai mountain (most likely Mount Fuji in Japan). He never returned. Legend claims that Xu Fu and his entourage reached Japan and colonised it and, the legend goes, transformed Japan by introducing new farming techniques and iron and bronze implements.
Most recent studies dispel these interpretations, but the undeniable facts remain that nowadays Xu Fu is worshipped as the god of farming, god of medicine and god of silk by modern day Japanese. Not bad for a charlatan who sold immortality to an emperor who died at the age of 49.
The theme is that by making false claims, charlatans get to explore. Fast forwarding to 2016 and our own search of a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. After more than a century of research into Alzheimer’s, we have reached a research cul-de-sac. The disease is said to be caused by misfolded proteins that cause plaques and tangles in the brain. These clog up the brain. So we have been waiting for a drug that unclogs the brain. And this decade we found such a drug.
Surprisingly, however, by eradicating the plaques and tangles from the brain, a series of studies reported that the disease worsened. Yes, it got worse. What this tells us is that the disease is more complex than just a build-up of misfolded proteins. For three decades, drug companies have been attempting to halt early onset dementia among an unfortunate community of 5,000 patients in 25 families in Medellin, Colombia. But so far without success.
Increasing social engagement programmes that promote walking, swimming and other light exercise improves the health of our brain
Even drugs used on patients with the disease have been found to be ineffective, costly and, in some cases, dangerous. Other evidence emerged that some people might have the plaques and tangles, but do not express the disease. While others express Alzheimer’s disease without having significant plaques and tangles. In addition, with much older adults, having plaques and tangles is less likely to result in Alzheimer’s disease. One way to explain these results is to look at the disease as being more than just misfolded proteins in the brain.
A public health perspective argues that there are multiple traumas to the brain. Some of these can be a virus or bacteria, while some are physical (like a concussion). We are seeing more how physical trauma causes dementia among American football players. But sometimes this trauma is managed and contained. A good example of this process is looking at stroke victims – where we see more than 30 per cent improving. In such cases, the protective layer of cells that surround the initial trauma is contained and the death of cells remains localised. Two factors promote this healthy brain. One is brain blood supply, while the other is our ability to continue growing our brain.
But charlatans continue to try and sell us a simple cure, an elixir. Like Xu Fu, they continue to explore the world of neurobiology while patients continue to die (earlier). But there is a partial solution. If we look at Alzheimer’s disease through a public health approach, we can start implementing programmes that reduce and lower the exposure to traumas.
Reduction of concussions (in sport, military and recreational activities) should be made a priority. Programmes that educate on the effects of smoking and heavy drinking on the brain need to be promoted, as well as programmes that address environmental toxicity both in the air and in our water.
Increasing social engagement programmes that promote walking, swimming and other light exercise improves the health of our brain. Other social activities like volunteering, the University of the Third Age, dancing, music and computer games continue to grow our brain.
Unless we follow blindly those selling us a cure for Alzheimer’s disease – like Xu Fu heading to Fuji mountain – we will be left behind trying all kinds of dangerous drugs.
Instead of waiting for the elixir of life, we can deal with some conditions today and try to prevent causing damage to our brain.
You might be luckier than Xu Fu’s benefactor and live beyond 49.
Mario Garrett was born in Malta and is currently a professor of gerontology at San Diego State University in California, US.