Purple is the new pink.
The expression is a catchy way of summing up the goals of the Mississippi Alzheimer’s Association: to raise awareness and funding in the battle against Alzheimer’s disease.
Just like with breast cancer, there are hundreds of Mississippians helping with races and research to one day find a cure for Alzheimer’s, a brain-ravaging illness that affects more than five million Americans.
“In Mississippi, there’s an estimated 53,000 that have it,” says Alzheimer’s Association state director Patty Dunn. “Unfortunately, diagnosing is more of a process of elimination.”
Named for the German scientist who first reported it in 1906, Alzheimer’s has been described as a progressive, degenerative disorder that attacks the brain’s nerve cells, resulting in loss of memory, thinking and language skills, and behavioral changes. While there has been much research into the causes and effects of the disease, to date there is no cure.
A cure is what Dunn and her purple T-shirt wearing volunteers and members will be walking for at the annual “Walk to End Alzheimer’s” on Sept. 14 at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson. The race had more than 600 participants last year and their goal this year is to raise $100,000.
“We think its a testament to the awareness of Alzheimer’s that’s fueling the growth in the amount of people,” Dunn says. “A portion of every dollar we raise goes to fund the national Alzheimer’s research programs.”
Detecting Alzheimer’s in its early stages can help the patient and their family prepare for treatment options and lifestyle changes.
The Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research says that after a medical history and physical examination, doctors can test a patient using problem-solving and vision-motor exercises. Brain scans are also ordered to rule out blood clots or tumors.
Dr. Ronald Schwartz, a licensed neurologist with the Hattiesburg Clinic, has managed ongoing clinical trials for new therapies and medicines related to Alzheimer’s detection and treatment.
Amyvid is the brand name of one the clinic’s tests and uses positron emission tomography (PET) scanning along with an FDA-approved radioactive tracer to check the amyloid plaque levels in a patient’s brain, the primary link to Alzheimer’s disease.
“Basically its a sticky protein that your brain can’t clear out,” Schwartz says. “Once these plaques are stuck in your brain… a whole cascade of things start happening the result of which is that nerve cells start to die.”
The scans are factored in with the patient’s symptoms, giving Schwartz a better shot at assessing whether or not the patient has Alzheimer’s. The lower the plaque levels, the better the odds that the symptoms aren’t related to the disease but to aging or something else.
“If its negative and you don’t have any amyloid, then you don’t have Alzheimer’s.” Schwartz says. “If its positive then there’s a very high likelihood that you do have Alzheimer’s.”
While Medicare and other insurance companies have not agreed how to cover the procedure, Schwartz says patients can still come in and order the test.
One test recently came back negative for an 86-year-old patient experiencing memory loss. “You’re not going to accumulate more amyloid at this point,” Schwartz says. “Alternatively, I could have a 62-year-old… and they’re a little forgetful. Their scan’s positive so that person I have to be more cautious.”
Researching a disease that can take years to manifest itself before even running its course isn’t easy.
“The more we know about risk factors, the better we can target treatment,” says Dr. Tom Mosley, director of the Memory Impairment and Neurodegenerative Dementia Research (MIND) Center at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson.
The MIND Center is in its third year of a landmark neuroepidemiology partnership study with Johns Hopkins University, the Mayo Clinic and others that will survey risk factors in thousands of middle to late-age adults. The study dovetails with the Center’s other research on brain aging and genetics.
“We’ll be able to go back 25 years to midlife, when we think, in fact, a lot of the early pathology of dementia probably starts,” Mosley says. “We can go back… and look at things like cholesterol and blood pressure and smoking and all these things and see which ones end up predicting dementia when you’re 75, 80 and 85.”
Mosley says that one thing the study will investigate is possible connections between obesity and Alzheimer’s. Evidence in some studies suggest that obesity is a future predictor of the disease.
“Its certainly not the only one,” Mosley says. “We looked at a gene that’s related to obesity and we looked at people’s memory function over time and we found in fact that the people that had a certain version of that gene… had a greater decline in cognitive function.”
There are more than 202,000 unpaid Alzheimer’s caregivers in the state, according to Dunn, and the disease is especially hard on family members. “The long goodbye,” was how it was described by the family of former President Ronald Reagan, who lived with the disease until his death in 2004.
Dunn says she recently attended an international Alzheimer’s conference in Boston along with 4,800 scientists and physicians from as far away as Australia and Japan. The latest discoveries and research were presented including work being done in Mississippi.
“Its encouraging,” Dunn says. “It provides some hope. We know we have an exceptionally long way to go with regard to research and funding.”
“I think the pipeline is exploding,” Schwartz says. “I try to be optimistic everyday. There’s a lot of excitement in terms of how close we’re getting. In the next five years I think we’re going to have some breakthroughs that are going to treat this disease completely differently than how we’re treating it now.”