Alzheimer's Revisited: Questioning the Medical Model

Jessica Zachar, Research Unplugged intern
March 24, 2008
professor in turquoise with hands outstretched lectures

Ballenger suggests the variety of courses that Alzheimer's disease can take.

"We tend to think about memory simply as a failure of recall, but I think we need to understand memory as connecting our past with our present with our future," said Jesse Ballenger at the final Research Unplugged event of the spring season, last Wednesday at the Penn State Downtown Theatre. "This is so important because it points to the fact that memory is a challenge for all of us, regardless of whether we experience dementia or not."

Ballenger, an assistant professor in the University's Science, Technology, and Society program, told the audience that his interest in Alzheimer's disease stems from an early experience working as a nursing assistant in the geriatric ward of a hospital. At the hospital, Ballenger witnessed firsthand the devastating effects Alzheimer's disease had on patients and family members. His experience led Ballenger to investigate issues related to Alzheimer's disease, including the rising fear of dementia in American society.

Alzheimer's is "the disease of the century," Ballenger said, in the sense that it is rooted in the existential fear that modern Americans have of losing their identity. "My own father was absolutely terrified of losing his mind as he grew older," he added. Ballenger noted that his research suggests that healthy people tend to stigmatize Alzheimer's disease and its sufferers.

Emphasizing that nearly $8 billion is spent each year in federal funding trying to find a cure for Alzheimer's, Ballenger expressed his belief that a portion of that money should be used to develop creative approaches to caring for patients afflicted with the disease. "I think it means that we should be more strategic in our research," he added. "If I had my way, we would reevaluate strategically what sort of research tools seem to be getting at some causative mechanisms of the disease process and really start to investigate those and not just go in every direction."

Ballenger's talk included a lively question-and-answer exchange with the audience, which included residents of The Village at Penn State. This season of Research Unplugged has been one of the most successful to date, and we look forward to bringing you another stimulating series of discussions during the fall semester.

Jesse Ballenger, Ph.D., is assistant professor of Science, Technology, and Society in the College of the Liberal Arts and the College of Engineering. He can be reached at

Last Updated March 24, 2008