More than 110,000 Tennesseans have Alzheimer’s disease. And, according to the Centers for Disease Control, the number of Alzheimer's deaths in the Volunteer State has more than doubled since 1999.
But modern medicine is helping doctors get in front of the mind-robbing disease.
Doctors can now actually see signs of Alzheimer’s through special PET scans years before a patient develops severe symptoms.
The technology is part of a national study that includes East Tennesseans.
Jenny Coburn is all too familiar with a doctor's waiting room. She worked as a nurse for years.
“I was in an office, said Coburn. “And I was just having trouble thinking."
Now, she's the patient.
“I don't get lost. I still drive," she said.
In fact, Coburn is a fulltime caregiver to her adult son who had a stroke.
“I really don't have that much of a problem, but I do take notes so I know what to do," she said.
Coburn has been proactively seeing Dr. Monica Crane, a geriatrics doctor who specializes in brain health. Crane recently opened her own practice, Genesis Neuroscience Clinic, to give more hands-on care and aggressively fight Alzheimer’s, dementia and other cognitive issues.
“I think we need to change the face of this disease,” said Crane. “I think the more people that reach out, speak out and try to get an aggressive workup early on, the better we'll all be.”
Locally, Dr. Crane is leading a national study called IDEAS. The acronym stands for Imaging Dementia-Evidence for Amyloid Scanning.
“This is the first large-scale opportunity for Medicare patients to be able to have a diagnosis before death,” Crane explained. “Imagine waiting for a cancer diagnosis until autopsy. It's a terrible way of treating a disease.”
Coburn is participating in the study.
An amyloid PET scan takes images of her brain at Provision Diagnostic Imaging.
The scan shows if sticky clumps of protein, amyloid plaque, are building up in the brain. Amyloid plaque is a core feature of Alzheimer’s disease.
A radioactive tracer is injected through an IV before the scan which makes the plaque visible during the roughly 30-minute test.
In just two months, Provision has scanned about 60 patients through the study with Medicare covering most of the cost.
Without coverage, the Amyloid Pet Scan is about $5,000.
“What we're trying to do is help Medicare determine whether broader coverage should be available for this procedure nationwide,” said Nick DeLaura, clinical operations manager with Provision Diagnostic Imaging.
The scan is FDA approved.
And, scan results are available within one to two weeks.
Crane believes the amyloid PET scan will be a game changer for detection and treatment.
“I think this is going to be a screening tool just like we do a mammogram,” Crane said. “When we have those disease stopping drugs you better believe people will want to know if they have it.”
Coburn does for her son’s sake.
“Since he does need a lot of care, I thought I need to be there for him," she said.
“The wonderful thing is, if we do find plague, your symptoms are minimal and we can start treatment now before you ever have a serious problem,” Crane said to Coburn. "And, if you're negative, I can reassure you that you'll never have Alzheimer's."
Coburn did have a positive scan, but as Crane mentioned, they found the plaque early. We will continue to follow Coburn’s journey which will include life-style changes, medication and other treatments.
To participate in the study, you do have to qualify and be referred by an IDEAS Study Dementia Specialist. You can learn more about it here.