Natural Causes?

October 28, 2014 - Trish Vradenburg

Ben Bradlee, the legendary editor of The Washington Post who was best known for exposing "Watergate," died last week. According to the Washington Post and the New York Times, Bradlee died of "natural causes." Yet it was widely known and reported CNN, Sept. 29, and numerous other outlets] that he suffered from Alzheimer's for many years. Alzheimer's is a disease, a cruel and debilitating disease, and it is no more a 'natural cause' of death than cancer or heart disease. With characteristic courage, Ben Bradlee and his wife Sally Quinn, brought Alzheimer's out of the shadows. I believe newspapers need to show the same courage and draw attention to Alzheimer's in obituaries, not hide from it, to reflect accuracy in reporting. 

Indeed, according to the obit page, only a few people died of Alzheimer's this week - or die any week. Although there are 500,000 deaths a year from this deadly disease - the third leading cause of death - it is barely mentioned in the obituaries. Wow, these newspapers really bury the headline. Alzheimer's must have been almost cured. That is what you would think if you were an obit reader. I'm one of those. I learned it from my Dad. He used to say that every morning he would wake up and look at the newspaper obits. If his name wasn't there, he'd go to work. 

But each day I look and each day an over-80-year-old person dies from everything but Alzheimer's: a long illness - the most popular cause; pneumonia - a close second; unknown causes; natural causes; and my favorite - his daughter confirmed his death. I guess she just noticed that Dad wasn't hungry. All of these are code words for Alzheimer's. 

I think this is analogous to HIV/AIDS when it first appeared. No one wanted to speak about it because it always led to a long, ugly death. Similarly, no one wants to admit that their parent, wife, or sister has Alzheimer's because they want people to remember their relative as a strong, vital person - not the picture of a helpless human being with a demented mind. It was only when the HIV/AIDS community came out of the closet about their disease when they demanded to be heard and called this disease what it was - a National Emergency - that people and, ultimately, Congress had to act.  And so Congress funded a 10-year plan for scientific research to find a cure or an alternative way to stave off the disease. And lo and behold, that's what happened. HIV/AIDS is no longer a death sentence; it is now a manageable disease. Oh to have Alzheimer's be a manageable disease.

It is time for us to come out of the shadows. It is time for newspapers to encourage truth in their obituaries. It is no shame to have a relative or friend with Alzheimer's - it is only a shame not to do something about it. Let's band together and make our loved ones who have faced this unforgiving disease stand for something meaningful. In their name we have to rise up and fight for funding. Maybe then Alzheimer's deaths really could take a holiday.

About the Author


Trish Vradenburg

UsAgainstAlzheimer's is a 501(c)(3) organization connecting networks of organizations and individuals to take action to end Alzheimer’s by 2020, while providing the general public, policy leaders and the media with vital information about Alzheimer’s disease.