PALO ALTO, CA—Alzheimer's researchers at Stanford University published a study this week showing that the degenerative brain disease is beginning to affect the baby boomer generation, causing many to remember the 1960s even less accurately than they normally would.
"We're seeing men and women who have spent so much of their lives misremembering the past grow even more detached from reality," said neuroanatomist Dr. Arthur Rothensen, who conducted the study. "This terrible disease has made thousands of boomers' memories of the 1960s almost completely unreliable and fragmented. And we're talking about people who, even before they contracted Alzheimer's, believed they single-handedly ended the war in Vietnam."
Added Rothensen, "It's just sad, really."
The study, which surveyed more than 1,500 baby boomers, found that Alzheimer's disease had a noticeable effect on those already suffering from "selective memory loss," and only added to the unrealistic and often romanticized nature of personal accounts from the time period.
Among the survey's participants, those who for decades had misremembered the '60s as a rose-colored utopia in which everything and anything was possible were 38 percent less likely to accurately recall the past.
"Dad always used to exaggerate his experience of the 1960s, but now he's totally gone," said Dylan Finster, who recently moved his father Harold into managed care. "It was bad enough when he would go on and on about being at Woodstock, and how it completely changed the world for the better. But these days, not only did Woodstock change the world, he was also airlifted out of Hanoi with Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jefferson Airplane in 1969."
"I miss those old, innocent lies," Finster continued.
According to the Stanford study, the growing dementia of Harold Finster is not uncommon. In fact, the ability of baby boomers to remember the more negative aspects of the '60s, such as the infighting among many activist movements, the inherent sexism behind free-love attitudes of the day, and the dangerous blurring of lines between harmless experimentation and full-blown drug-abuse, almost always grew worse after diagnosis with the degenerative brain disease.
"I was washing dishes at Alice's Restaurant when Lt. William Calley ran in and shot Bobby McGee Kennedy right there in front of me," said 66-year-old Jacob Schwartz, a participant in the study who suffers from Alzheimer's. "It was the hottest Summer of Love on record, which was probably why all the blacks were playing in the fire hoses. They were having such a good time! We all were!"
"I remember when Marvin Gaye sang that 'I Have A Dream' song in Washington, D.C.," 63-year-old participant Shirley Meneken said. "Everything was perfect after that. There were no more problems or disagreements after that song. Everything was so good and perfect! And we were there! We did it! Nobody felt any disillusionment years later."
In addition to mixing fact with fiction, confusing progressive action with being stoned out of their minds, and holding onto impossibly positive recollections of what was in reality a very complicated time, a majority of baby boomers in the study also misremembered the decades that followed.
"Zero of 1,500 subjects admitted to remembering anything about the disco-malaise of the 1970s, the surface-level materialism of the 1980s, or the overindulgent parenting of the 1990s," Alzheimer's Research Center director Robert Feinmann said. "It's almost as if those memories are too painful to deal with, either because they're ashamed of them or because they're so unbelievably lame. Either way, to most boomers, it's like those times happened to someone else."
"Essentially, we're dealing with a group whose values have always been malleable—they rebelled against a 'greatest generation' of war-winning parents whom they now worship, they always claimed to have changed society by refusing to participate in it and even claimed they invented rock and roll," Feinmann continued. "Yes, Alzheimer's may be loosening their grip on reality, but we're not sure how firm it was to begin with."