Around Christmastime in December 2022, Missie Meeks and her family noticed she had been forgetful and not acting like herself for months. She was having trouble thinking and reasoning, and doing math was especially challenging.

“Luckily for me, I had enough people who cared about me to raise a red flag and say, ‘Something’s up with Missie, and this is not her normal behavior pattern or thinking,’” she told the Crirec on June 21.

She first visited Hattiesburg, Miss., neurologist Dr. Wendell Helveston in February 2023; he conducted various tests on her over the next few months until he landed on an early onset Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis in July 2023. Meeks turned 50 a few days later.

“When I got Alzheimer’s, I was a mess because I was nowhere near the old Missie that I was,” she said.

Meeks was an English instructor at Jones College in Ellisville, Miss., at the time and had planned to teach for years longer before retiring, but her Alzheimer’s diagnosis forced her to retire early in 2023.

Signs And Symptoms

Missie Meeks said some of her first symptoms were that thinking and problem-solving became difficult, even though she is organized and orderly.

She realized she had a serious problem when she forgot how to crank her car to drive home from the grocery store one day. Her car was a push-to-start, so Meeks needed to push down on the brake while pressing the start button, but she could not remember what to do for about 30 minutes.

“That was when I realized that the concern from my friends and my family was genuine and that it was more to it than just nerves,” she said.

Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia that affects both memory and behavior. Her neurologist, Dr. Wendell Helveston at Hattiesburg Clinic, said the most common symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease are forgetfulness, like forgetting someone’s name or what they said, and getting lost, like while driving.

He said Alzheimer’s is a multi-year disease that can start subtly, so it is important for a person to recognize changes in their memory early on.

“It is absolutely critical that people not delay … and put off being evaluated because we do have really good treatment options to slow the progression of the disease,” the neurologist told the Crirec on June 21.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Alzheimer’s Association data shows that around 63,000 Mississippians who are 65 and older have Alzheimer’s and that more than 11% of residents aged 45 and older have subjective cognitive decline.

Dr. Wendell Helveston said one reason for the increase in diagnoses is because the science is more precise than ever before, and people want a specific diagnosis like Alzheimer’s rather than saying someone is “senile.”

Official headshot of a man in a suit
Hattiesburg Clinic Neurologist Dr. Wendell Helveston says “it is absolutely critical that people not delay” in being evaluated for Alzheimer’s “because we do have really good treatment options to slow the progression of the disease.” Photo courtesy Emily Delnicki

He encourages people to go to the doctor as soon as they notice Alzheimer’s symptoms or other memory issues. A doctor will conduct bedside testing, examine the patient, get blood work, and do diagnostic testing and brain imaging like MRI and PET scans of the brain.

If a person gets an early Alzheimer’s diagnosis, they can now be treated with a new medication called Leqembi that is delivered through IV infusions every two weeks. The medicine can slow the rate of disease progression by nearly 30%. The FDA approved Leqembi in January 2023.

“With this disease, the earlier you get treated, the better the likelihood is that you respond to the medication and have a slower rate of progression,” he said.

Leqembi is a medicine that slows the progression of Alzheimer’s, rather than just addressing the disease’s symptoms with symptomatic treatments.

“It’s a little bit like giving someone cough syrup to someone with pneumonia. It didn’t change the course of disease,” Helveston said about symptomatic treatments.

Cells “clumping together abnormally” form larger proteins until they make amyloid plaques that cause “cellular damage in the brain,” causing Alzheimer’s disease, Helveston said. He said Leqembi works by attaching to abnormal proteins “in all stages of formation,” digesting the proteins and removing them.

Missie Meeks started taking Leqembi right after it came out in July 2023, she recalled. She is hopeful about the advancements in Alzheimer’s disease treatment and said many new options may be “on the horizon” and going through lab testing.

She posted about her diagnosis on Facebook, and a friend reached out and said she also had Alzheimer’s. Meeks and her friend are working to form the Jones County Alzheimer’s Association to raise awareness and offer support to Alzheimer’s patients.

Meeks said can still do her daily life activities, like driving, attending church, going out to eat and spending time with family. Since starting Leqembi, she said she can concentrate better, but she still feels tired from Alzheimer’s symptoms.

“If they get a diagnosis or if a loved one gets a diagnosis, just hang on,” Meeks said. “Go through all the testing; go through all the paperwork. Just move forward with what the doctor tells you to do, and that’s going to help a lot.”

Reporter Heather Harrison graduated from Mississippi State University with a degree in Communication in 2023. She worked at The Reflector student newspaper for three years, starting as a staff writer, then the news editor before becoming the editor-in-chief. During her time at The Reflector, Heather won 13 awards for her multi-media journalism work.

In her free time, Heather likes to walk her dog, Finley, read books, and listen to Taylor Swift. Heather lives in Starkville, where she has spent the past four years. She is a Hazlehurst, Mississippi, native.