​Dr. Julie Kutac ’01 Leading The Way For Alzheimer’s Awareness

September 17, 2018

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When Julie Kutac ’01 was 13, her grandmother began showing signs of dementia. Since her mother was an only child, the two of them served as her primary caregivers. After a fall several years later, her grandmother forgot how to walk. This very personal experience led her to pursue a career researching the medical, social, and societal impact of Alzheimer’s. Now, as the professional education and research specialist for the Alzheimer’s Association’s Houston and Southeast Texas Chapter, Kutac is working to educate more people about the disease.

Kutac—a molecular biology major and theology minor—also has Master of Religious Studies from Rice University with a focus on the philosophy of religion, and a Ph.D. in medical humanities from the University of Texas Medical Branch with a focus on health care ethics and the literature and narrative studies of medicine.

“This was my first contact with a devastating, chronic disease,” she said. “We sent my grandmother to rehab not recognizing that she didn’t have short-term memory so she couldn’t remember what she was learning. We then found an assisted living residence, but she kept getting fired because she would wander. Her purse was stolen, too, while living there and someone was forging checks and ran up $30,000 in charges. I think it’s important to note that these facilities have gotten so much better than they were in the early 90s, but 60 percent of people with Alzheimer’s do wander. One time, she ended up at the Highway 59 on-ramp.”

During all of this, Kutac was a pre-med student at Texas Lutheran University learning for the first time how the natural world connected to the arts and humanities.

“My grandma was really declining while I was at TLU,” she said. “While my family and I were dealing with all of that, I was taking so many interesting classes where I realized people were asking hard questions about the way we treat others. They were studying the moral world from an academic perspective. That blew my mind. I quickly realized how connected my theology courses with Dr. Beck and Dr. Baer were to my bioethics class with Dr. Jonas and Dr. Gilbertson. I saw how these two areas weren’t opposite at all. There were lots of places they intersected if you just knew where to look.”

Kutac says her grandmother eventually found residence at a place where she was treated like a person and not an object. She got the person-centered, compassionate care she needed and didn’t wander any more.

“I wish more people realized Alzheimer’s is a public health crisis and not just a disease for older people,” she said. “It’s the sixth leading cause of death and the most expensive disease to treat. Annually, $259 billion is spent on it just in the U.S. and there are between 5.4 to 5.7 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s or a form of dementia. Then, there are usually three unpaid care givers for each of those people.”

Despite those staggering statistics, Kutac says it’s a disease we still have a difficult time talking about. She thinks many people are misunderstood about it because of the way Alzheimer’s is often misrepresented by only showing it at the latest stages.

“There’s a lot that goes on before that part of the disease progression,” she said. “Even some medical providers have a hard time talking about it and less than half of the people with Alzheimer’s don’t get a diagnosis. Even less are told they have been diagnosed. Neither dementia nor Alzheimer’s are normal parts of aging. Alzheimer’s is a neurocognitive disease and dementia is just a category word like cancer. There are lots of types of cancer and lots of types of dementia that cause loss of cognitive function, but Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia.”

Since everyone has a brain, Kutac says we should all care about and become involved in awareness efforts.

“We don’t know what causes Alzheimer’s, so if you have a brain you’re at risk,” she said. “Everyone truly has a reason to get involved and the Alzheimer’s Association is leading the way. Helping us raise funds during our walk season is critical. That money goes toward research, awareness, and the overall program. I also ask people to educate themselves about the disease. There are community educators that will go out and present warning signs and the basics to help undo the misinformation that’s out there. We want to get people evidence-based education to help develop the cultural narrative about the disease.”

Aside from volunteer opportunities, Kutac also mentioned the importance of advocates who work at the state, local, and national levels to help elected officials drive their agenda and make policy changes.

"The work of these advocates influenced Congress, who finally allocated $400 million specifically for dementia research," she said. "That number continues to increase; this year, the Senate and House have both approved an increase for Fiscal Year 2019 that will allocate over $2 billion to Alzheimer's and dementia research."

Kutac was also able to present at the Alzheimer’s Regional Congressional Update where she gave an overview of research to state representatives and a tour of Dr. Josh Schulman’s lab. Schulman is a NIH-funded scientist at Baylor College of Medicine’s Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute.

During the Houston Alliance to Address Dementia, Kutac trained more than 600 health professionals about evidence-based dementia care. In addition, she organized the Houston Conference for Health Care Professionals as well as the Family Care Giver Conference.

She’s currently the professional trainer for a new grant called “Texas Takes On Dementia” to help train nurses and social workers with Texas insurance companies how to serve people with dementia who are dual Medicaid and Medicare eligible. She continues to organize conferences, with three planned for next year, including a state-wide conference for dementia research scientists.

While these are all experiences she is extremely proud of, Kutac says speaking at the 2018 TLU Spring Graduation was another career highlight. The university has made a lasting impact on her life and the work she continues to do.

“I think it’s really important to know how valuable it is to have a liberal arts, person-centered education,” she said. “At TLU, I was part of a community where I could thrive and I had access to thought leaders on campus. I was given opportunities to grow intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. That’s not something you get everywhere. TLU is special.”

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