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Tucson vascular surgeon to lead new multi-million dollar study on Alzheimer’s Disease

Published: Jan. 17, 2022 at 6:13 PM MST|Updated: Jan. 17, 2022 at 7:55 PM MST

TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - If you were to look at David Eisenhuth’s resume, you would see United States Air Force, firefighter, owner of his own insurance agency, and barber, but the most important job he has held is caregiver.

Eisenhuth, an only child, said he spent more than 15 years of his life caring for his mother, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease.

“She graduated from nursing school in Ponce, Puerto Rico in 1947,” Eisenhuth said.

After graduation, without knowing any English, Olga moved to Denver, Colorado to complete officer training school for the army.

“She was a psychiatric nurse and got stationed in Germany. That is actually how she med my dad. They were married until the day he died,” Eisenhuth said.

Eisenhuth said as he mother aged, she began to show early signs of dementia.

“It is like watching the person right in front of you disappear,” Eisenhuth said. “The first time your parent looks at you and says, ‘Who are you?’ That is like getting hit with a shovel. That is probably the biggest thing. You remember that day like it is burned into you,” Eisenhuth said.

Olga moved in with Eisenhuth and his wife for about seven years, but as the disease worsted, Eisenhuth said they made the difficult decision to move Olga into a skilled nursing facility.

“She was in her 80s and the doctors had all said it could be very fast and he said something weird, he said, ‘Pray for that because a long-term goodbye is a hard way to go through this.’ I was upset because you don’t pray for someone to die early, but I didn’t know anything about the disease. There is no roadmap for this stuff,” Eisenhuth said.

It wasn’t a quick goodbye; Olga lived with Alzheimer’s Disease for another 10 to 12 years.

“It’s horrific. I would not wish it upon anyone but the problem I see is it’s only going to get worse,” Eisenhuth said.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than six million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s Disease. By 2050, that number is projected to rise to nearly 13 million.

“Here in Arizona, we have the highest rate in the nation of Alzheimer’s Disease,” said Dr. Craig Weinkauf, MD, PhD, an assistant professor in the University of Arizona’s Department of Surgery’s Division of Vascular and Endovascular Surgery.

Weinkauf is a vascular surgeon leading a new study to discover the impact of carotid disease on cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most common type of dementia.

“Presumably, this is a process that is slow and indolent and occurs over the course of years to decades and we are trying to understand what actual risk factors might be more important for understanding brain psychology,” Weinkauf said.

It is a question Weinkauf hopes to answer thanks in part to a $4.9 million grant from the National Institute of Health that will fund this interdisciplinary, five-year study.

“This is actually really exciting because this is such a big research group. We have neuroimaging experts, MRI experts, vascular experts, neurocognitive experts, Alzheimer’s disease experts and we are all working together,” Weinkauf said.

Weinkauf said this study will either confirm or refute their hypothesis that carotid vascular disease negatively affects cognition and overall brain health.

Weinkauf said this study comes after treating some patients with carotid vascular disease, who have told him they had clearer vision, thinking and hearing after a carotid vascular procedure.

If the team of experts finds a direct correlation between carotid vascular disease and dementia, there is good news.

“We already have the tools needed to treat the disease,” Weinkauf said.

Eisenhuth says it is research like this that gives him hope.

“If one person can be prevented from going through this, and I’m talking about both the patient side and the side of the caregiver, then it’s worth it. Maybe five, 10 years down the road people will say ‘Alzheimer’s, oh yeah, it was like polio, gone.”

To learn more about this NIH-funded study, click here.

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