PHOENIX (KSAZ) - It's something few people would argue: Alzheimer's Disease is a devastating diagnosis. According to the National Institute on Aging, more than five million Americans may have the disease, and there is no cure for it.
Doctors, however, are working hard to find answers, and some of the most advanced research in the world is happening in Arizona.
"Do you remember the day we really found it, honey?" asked Ron Carmichael. He and his wife, Pat, have been living with the disease since 2010. Seven years ago, Pat got lost on her way to see a movie with her friends. The police had to call Ron, and both went to the Mayo Clinic the next day.
"We walked out with a diagnosis of Alzheimer's," said Ron. "A shock to both of us."
When Pat was diagnosed, she was 72, and had just survived her Breast Cancer battle. Pat is 79 today, and in the moderate stages of Alzheimer. At times, she becomes disoriented, forgetting things others would always remember.
Ron, meanwhile, is helping Pat navigate her ever-changing world, all the while keeping in mind that fateful day.
The inevitable day when his wife won't remember him either.
"Good advice tells you to enjoy the moment," said Ron. "So, we will go and tonight we will celebrate with Teddy Roosevelt, and tomorrow morning Pat won't remember a thing about it. But in the moment, I'll see her smiling, and I know...that moment she enjoyed."
As Ron and Pat move forward in life, research on the disease that is ravaging Pat is also moving forward.
"When I first started, we had to wait until a person died before we could look at their brain under a microscope and see if they had the tell-tale signs of Alzheimer's Disease. Now, we can tell in real life," said Dr. Edward Zamrini.
One of the earliest causes for Alzheimer's is an abnormal accumulation of a protein in the brain called Amyloid. The protein then form plaques that slowly kills nerve cells. The latest medications still under research have shown some ability to reduce the plaques in the brain.
The correct dose, as well as the time to start the medication, is all still unknown.
"We are talking about decades here," said Zamrini. "And so, because the process is so slow, studying it is going to take a long time."
In order to move forward with the research, however, doctors need help. Zamrini has taken a proposal to the community of Sun City West, a community that will see more and more of the disease, as its residents age.
"The more people that participate in clinical research, and do so sooner rather than later, the quicker we will have answers, and the sooner we will beat this disease," said Zamrini.
"I more or less jumped at the chance to go ahead and be swabbed for this," said Mona McCoy. She watched her mother-in-law die from Alzheimer's Disease, and she has volunteered herself for potentially groundbreaking clinical trials with doctors at Banner Sun Health.
The process is called GeneMatch, and it starts with a quick swab of the mouth. That swab later gets sent off to the lab, where researchers will look for certain genes that can determine if someone is at risk of getting Alzheimer's.
"Now that we can tell who is going to get Alzheimer's, we can try out promising new medications in order to see if they will prevent or delay Alzheimer's disease," said Zamrini. He said 15% of those who signs up with GeneMatch will get a call to participate in a study that varies from medication to cognitive tests. The more who participate before they show symptoms, the faster doctors can make progress before it's too late.
The goal now is to have significant, life-changing advancements in prevention or a delay of symptoms, by the year 2025.
"We've beaten polio, we've gone to the moon," said Zamrini. "Once we put our minds to it, you know, there's no limit to what we can achieve."
As for Pat Carmichael, she has been involved in three clinical studies after her diagnosis. Ron said it's a decision they always make together.
"We may not be the beneficiaries, but we can make the beneficiaries the people we love the most, and that's the reason you do it." said Ron.
To learn more about GeneMatch, click here.