By Michael J. Young
Earlier this month, landmark findings were published in the American Journal of Psychiatry illuminating the effect of disclosing genetic risk for Alzheimer’s disease on older adults’ cognition and memory. In a case-control study, researchers administered memory function tests to a group of known carriers of the apolipoprotein E4 allele (one of the best studied genetic risk factors for developing Alzheimer’s disease), half of whom were informed of their carrier status, and half of whom were not informed of their carrier status. They reported “[s]ignificant genotype-by-disclosure interaction effects were observed on several memory rating scales and tests of immediate and delayed verbal recall. Older adults who knew their ε4+ genotype judged their memory more harshly and performed worse on an objective verbal memory test than did ε4+ adults who did not know. In contrast, older adults who knew their ε4− genotype judged their memory more positively than did ε4− adults who did not know…informing older adults that they have an APOE genotype associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease can have adverse consequences on their perception of their memory abilities and on their performance on objective memory tests. Similar consequences might be expected if other indices of an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease are disclosed (e.g., neuroimaging or CSF biomarkers of preclinical Alzheimer’s disease.)”
These findings raise profound questions for practitioners who must make regular decisions concerning how to communicate health risk information to patients, and more fundamentally, about what principles and policies ought to govern which findings should be disclosed or disguised.
The study and its implications bear striking correlates to a set of key issues in philosophy of language relating to the meta-descriptive aspects of speech and discourse. In a series of lectures later published as How We Do Things with Words, philosopher J.L. Austin persuasively argued against a longstanding philosophical tradition that had conceptualized language as a construct that exists solely to describe reality as it is or is imagined to be; Austin reasoned that language can serve not only to describe facts but can also serve to establish new facts by representing them as such.