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Pat Summitt: What does early-onset dementia mean for Lady Vols coach?

August 23, 2011|By Amina Khan, Los Angeles Times / For the Booster Shots blog
  • Tennessee women's basketball head coach Pat Summitt has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia.
Tennessee women's basketball head coach Pat Summitt has been diagnosed… (Dave Martin / Associated…)

Pat Summitt says she has early onset dementia -- Alzheimer's type -- but isn't going to let that keep her from what she loves doing: coaching women's basketball at the University of Tennessee.

In a heartfelt interview with the Washington Post, the winningest coach in college basketball explained that she had received the diagnosis but that it took her a while to accept it. 

Early-onset Alzheimer's can be a difficult diagnosis to face. It sets in well before the age of 65, the Mayo Clinic explains, the typical lower limit for standard Alzheimer's disease, and thus affects people when they're still in their prime, often with elderly parents or young children to care for as well.

The disease, which mostly affects people in their 30s, 40s and 50s, affects about 5% of the total number of patients diagnosed with Alzheimer's. It can be inherited, but researchers are not yet sure what exactly triggers the disease.

The 59-year-old Summitt says she is using flashcards and doing puzzles to keep her mental acuity up. While the jury is out on how much mental exercise really helps fend off the onset of Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia, the National Institutes of Health says some research is promising. It points to research finding that for every one-point increase in cognitive activity, patients saw a 33% decrease in risk of Alzheimer's disease.

As for whether Summitt will be able to continue coaching the Lady Vols, the Alzheimer's Assn. says this: "Continue to work as long as you, your employer and your doctor feel you are able."

That seems to be what Summitt is doing. According to the Washington Post, the university chancellor tearfully told her that she would "always be our coach."

Follow me on Twitter @LAT_aminakhan.

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