An Economy of False Profits

Our national allegiance to the monetary bottom line threatens to negate other measures of personal and communal wealth. What’s being sacrificed to the cult of money?

  • What might have triggered such damage in the brains of the estimated one million Americans and 10 million persons globally who share her condition?
    Photo courtesy of Getty Images / Seb_ra
  • We have been taught that people who control vast amounts of money are worthy of our attention, our respect, even our adulation.
    Photo by Getty Images / Bronswerk
  • Beauty, democracy, community, families, skillful work, parks and schools, the arts and sciences, legal fairness, the social compact, nature’s abundance—these are crucial forms of wealth that do not show up on balance sheets or stock exchanges.
    Photo courtesy of Getty Images / Ro Molotavani

A few years ago, I began to notice the trembling of the newspaper in my wife’s hand as she held it up to read at breakfast. Since Ruth and I were in our 60s, I took it to be a sign of aging, like the creases in my face or the arthritis in my thumbs, rather than a sign of illness. As months passed, however, the trembling grew more pronounced, and ominous, the way the quivering of leaves foretells an approaching storm. Then one morning she lowered the newspaper, pressed it firmly on the table to still her hand, and said, “I think I have Parkinson’s.”

A neurologist soon confirmed the diagnosis. Ruth and I knew several people who suffered from Parkinson’s disease, some in the late stages, their voices whittled to a whisper, their movements hindered, their balance unsure. One of them, a master carpenter, had been forced to give up his trade because he could no longer think through the sequence of measuring, cutting, fitting, and fastening that his trade required. Another one, a music teacher, could no longer play the instrument she had taught to generations of children. A third acquaintance, an artist, had lost the ability to speak. So Ruth and I realized that our life together, after more than four decades of marriage, had taken an alarming turn.

As a pair of academics trained in research—Ruth in biochemistry, I in literature—we responded to the diagnosis by reading everything we could find about this neurodegenerative disease, from technical scientific papers to memoirs by people stricken with Parkinson’s. For months it was the chief topic of our conversations. We began referring to her affliction as “PD,” as though it were an unwelcome relative who had come to live in the basement and would never move out.

We soon learned the basic facts: PD destroys neurons in the brain that produce dopamine; this damage increases over time, disrupting signals that control bodily movement; PD also interferes with the autonomic nervous system, which controls heartbeat, breathing, digestion and other vital functions; it can cause anxiety, depression, and dementia; the few available therapies eventually lose their effectiveness; there is no known cure. Aside from a small percentage of cases linked to genetic mutations, the causes of PD remain obscure.

Since her diagnosis, Ruth has focused her reading on practical accounts of how to live with the disease and on reports of potential new treatments. I read about those matters as well, but I am drawn especially to research into possible causes. Tests revealed that Ruth’s DNA contains none of the modified genes associated with PD. Nor has she suffered any head trauma—such as that suffered by combat soldiers, football players and boxers—a factor that increases the likelihood of the disease fourfold. So what else might have triggered the drastic changes in her brain? And what might have triggered such damage in the brains of the estimated one million Americans and 10 million persons globally who share her condition?

While no single cause for PD has been conclusively identified, there are a number of suspects, including several types of environmental pollution common in our home state of Indiana, where Ruth has spent all but six years of her life. Compared to the general population, farm workers and others who are regularly exposed to pesticides are more than twice as likely to develop PD. Since over half the land area of Indiana is devoted to chemical-intensive farming, these poisons leach into the state’s groundwater and rivers. Agricultural runoff, coupled with the release of toxic chemicals from industrial facilities, led an independent research group in 2014 to rate Indiana’s water quality as the worst in the nation. Indiana’s air quality is also among the nation’s worst, due in part to vehicle emissions, as in other states, but mainly to emissions from heavy industry and coal-fired power plants. Ultrafine particles from coal smoke and diesel exhaust penetrate through the nose, along the channel of the olfactory nerve and into the brain, where they cause chronic inflammation—a known factor in various neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Coal smoke also carries heavy metals—lead, nickel, cadmium, arsenic and mercury, among others—all neurotoxins, which enter the body through air and water.

1/11/2019 5:09:39 PM

I totally agree. Now, for a piece of advice for something that could very well help your wife. Marijuana. A strain particularly suited for your wife's PD. I've seen it work with my own eyes though I won't say it works for everyone. That I honestly don't know. What I do know is he could laugh where before he could barely vocalize, hold his spoon { a fork was too dangerous to use with the shaking} without losing food, walk {with help at first then with a walker on his own!}, and his hands no longer clenched tightly and they didn't shake. His face didn't get that blank look. He had life in his eyes again, not that questioning, wary scared look. The kind when a young child meets a stranger. Of course this didn't happen immediately. But it DID happen. The man that isn't right, he sobbed. He was not quite his old self but came damn close to it. It isn't a cure by no means. But it did lend a longer quality of life for him. I wish you and your wife well. Thank you for an honest read.

12/14/2018 4:34:53 PM

thanks for letting me know i am not alone in my thoughts

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