Leading the Fight: Nantz National Alzheimer Center

Mark Huntsman
By Mark HuntsmanMarch 11, 2014

Since its inception in 2011, the Nantz National Alzheimer Center (NNAC) has become a world-renowned referral center, treating thousands of patients each year. Its goal: slow memory loss progression and improve the quality of life for every patient.

We had the pleasure of speaking with Rebecca Axline, LCSW, a supervisory clinical social worker at NNAC who provides clinical intervention and program development focused on helping patients and their families deal with the treatment of neurological disease. 

How did the Nantz National Alzheimer Center get its start?

March Madness. The Masters. The Super Bowl. If you like sports—heck, if you’re in the same family as someone who likes sports—you’ve heard the rich, Emmy Award-winning voice of Jim Nantz announcing games on CBS Sports for almost 30 years now. The story of how Jim Nantz and his wife Courtney became connected with Houston Methodist begins with his father, who battled Alzheimer’s disease for 13 years.

“Jim is from Houston originally,” says Rebecca Axline. “When his dad started experiencing symptoms of Alzheimer’s, he began seeing Dr. Stanley Appel, the director of the Houston Methodist Neurological Institute.”

Dr. Appel is part of an esteemed roster of doctors and social workers at the Houston Methodist Department of Neurology that has been at the forefront of research and treatment of Alzheimer’s, ALS, and Parkinson’s disease since the 1990s. When Jim returned to Houston to spend time with his father and family, he had no shortage of opportunity to interact with Dr. Appel and his team, and the groundwork for the NNAC was laid. Beyond their generous lifetime commitment to found the Center, Jim and Courtney are heavily involved in meeting and reaching out to new patients, as well as work in the community.

Jim Nantz recounts his father’s long struggle with Alzheimer’s—which happened alongside his own rise to the top of the sports broadcasting world—in a tender and anecdote-rich book, Always by My Side: The Healing Gift of a Father’s Love. The book was popular and well-loved, which points to the hard truth that while each individual’s struggle with Alzheimer’s is incredibly personal, it is also intensely involved for family members and caregivers, who must find the strength to fight the battle anew every day.

What aspects of Alzheimer’s disease is the NNAC focused on?

“What’s unique about our center,” says Axline, “is that we not only provide hope for the families, but we have a more comprehensive approach—many times there are other things that might be affecting the neuropsychology, and these can be treated. We investigate all possibilities in each of our patients.”

These include factors like:

  • Chemical depression
  • Vitamin deficiency
  • Sleep apnea

But the Nantz Center is also uniquely focused on developing family relationships. “Our social workers understand caregiver fatigue,” Axline continues. “We work hard to help them understand that they’re not alone in this, and that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. We help families to understand they have resources available to them, and that we’re here to help.”

What can we expect to see from the NNAC in 2014?

Dr. Joseph Masdeu, director of the NNAC, has more than 30 years’ experience in Alzheimer’s research and neural imaging. His work has included organizing a program to forestall the onset of the disease in people genetically predisposed to it, and he plays an instrumental role in the Center using new neural imaging devices to investigate new treatments that may be realizable down the road.

“The social workers,” notes Axline, “are working to further develop and refine their principles for how they interact with families.” She continues:

“We’re looking at additional ways to educate families, because, with Alzheimer’s, knowledge is power. Both patients and caregivers need to know: you’re not alone. When you feel you’re isolated, you feel alone, which is why it’s incredibly important to promote the truth that what you’re feeling and going through is normal.”

Indeed it is. Today, one in every three seniors dies with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, and the disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. Last year, according to the Alzheimer’s Association 2013 report, it cost the nation $203 billion. One hard truth we face is that what’s normal now is expected to become only more so in the coming years: that number is expected to rise to $1.2 trillion by 2050.

Thankfully, we have dedicated, generous spirits like Jim Nantz, and the diligence of doctors and social workers like the ones at the NNAC working to improve care and advance treatments. We are not alone.

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Mark Huntsman

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