Ascension Seton Brain and Spine Institute Leader to Speak at Vatican about Dementia


There have been five popes in Dr. Robert Buchanan’slifetime. Come February, he will formally meet his third one.

A conceptual look at Alzheimers disease, and some of the problems it brings.

A conceptual look at Alzheimers disease, and some of the problems it brings.

Buchanan, the Ascension Seton Brain and Spine Institute’s chief of functional and restorative neurosurgery and neuroscience, also will have the opportunity to provide Pope Francis and the Vatican with information – and his insights – on dementia and cognitive impairment, particularly in older people as they get Alzheimer’s disease.

What is a dreaded and difficult issue that more families often wrestle with also is a weighty matter with thoughtful theological questions for the Catholic Church to consider in guiding its flock.

Buchanan is scheduled to travel to the Vatican and make a 20-minute presentation on the subject to the Pontifical Academy for Life, founded in 1994 by Pope John Paul II to promote and defend human life, especially regarding bioethics as it affects Christian morality. The academy will hold its 20th General Assembly Feb. 20-21 and feature a workshop on “Aging and Disability” in the New Hall of the Synod inside the Vatican’s walls. Buchanan was appointed a member of the academy last year by Pope Benedict XVI.

The academy usually doesn’t select members to present, Buchanan said. He thinks he stood out because he completed both medical residencies and fellowships in neurosurgery, psychiatry and neuroscience research, bringing a broader and deeper perspective to the subject.

As the world’s population ages and lives longer, more people will experience Alzheimer’s and other ailments. So far, “Band Aid things can be done about it, but there’s little on the horizon to indicate a cure,” Buchanan said.

Questions related to the sanctity of life are raised along with concerns surrounding the quality of life.

“What is the humane thing to do? Even with the best of intentions, we can act erroneously. We, as humans, are walking a slippery slope if we decide someone who’s demented should no longer live,” he said. “Life is sacred in all its stages, from the womb to the grave. Life is a journey for us and for those who love and care for us, whether we are weak or strong.”

Buchanan believes that, if the person with Alzheimer’s clearly and carefully advised loved ones previously, in a sound state of mind, to “pull the plug” instead of pursuing extraordinary medical care expected only to prolong life, “that’s moral, solid ground. If someone can’t eat without a feeding tube or gets severe refractory pneumonia, that’s one thing. I think it’s morally acceptable to say nature is taking its course.”

But if the plug’s being pulled because the family doesn’t want to take care of someone with dementia, that’s another matter.

“Terminating life is never morally acceptable,” he said.

“We learn a lot about ourselves when someone we love is totally dependent on us,” Buchanan said. “I think love is care, not termination.”

He noted that medical advancements, healthier lifestyles and other factors are leading toward people routinely living to be 100 years of age or older sometime in the future. Biomedical sciences have improved the quality and length of life through advancements in prevention and treatment of diseases of heart, lung and other organ systems. However, because of the inherent complexities of brain science, there has been a lag in neuroscience advancements.

He asked, “What do we do if our bodies are fine, but our brains have dementia?”

The new pope and his advisors, including Buchanan, will contemplate such questions at the February meeting, which also will feature a concert in honor of the Pontifical Academy’s two decades of service. The pope will also attend the concert – and Buchanan will be staying in Vatican’s Casa Santa Marta guesthouse, where the pope also resides.

Buchanan already has had the honor of formally meeting Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. He hopes to add a framed photo in his Ascension Seton office of him with Pope Francis.

“I think he’s a shining beacon of virtue to not just Catholics, but to the world.” Buchanan said. “He’s walking the walk and talking the talk and calling on others to do the same. He has moved away from only talking about the symptoms of a ‘suffering world’ and has invited all of us to share in the joy of Jesus Christ.”