Pat Summitt And Dementia: Medical Expert Explains The Coach's Diagnosis

SB Nation's medical expert explains more about Pat Summitt's early-onset dementia, a debilitating disease that the legendary Tennessee basketball coach was diagnosed with this week.

Thirty-six seasons coached without a losing record. Eight NCAA national championships. More wins than any other coach in NCAA basketball history, men's or women's. To achieve these milestones, one must display perseverance, courage, and drive.

Which is why it comes as no surprise that, when faced with the diagnosis of early-onset dementia - a condition that will, over time, result in profound, debilitating cognitive impairment - Tennessee women's basketball head coach Pat Summitt has chosen to put her trademark determination on display and continue to coach her Lady Volunteers.

After a series of memory lapses prompted a visit to the Mayo Clinic in May, Summitt, 59, was diagnosed with dementia, a condition in which individuals suffer a decline in intellectual functioning, including problems with memory, reasoning and thinking, beyond what is expected from normal aging. Although far more common in the geriatric population, if it occurs before age 65, as in Summitt's case, it is defined as early-onset dementia.

The most common form of early-onset dementia - and the one Summitt faces - is known as Alzheimer's-type, occurs in approximately 200,000 Americans, and results in untreatable and debilitating neurocognitive impairment. While some types of dementia are reversible, Alzheimer's involves progressive degeneration of the brain cells, beginning with the hippocampus, the area of the brain that processes memories, and the cerebral cortex, which is responsible for decision making and thought processes. It is unclear what causes the degeneration, and it is also unknown why the rate of progression of the disease varies tremendously among individuals.

The early indicators of early-onset Alzheimer's disease are similar to those of late-onset Alzheimer's. These symptoms include regularly losing items, difficulty executing common tasks, forgetfulness, personality changes, confusion, poor judgment, challenges with basic communication and language, social withdrawal and problems following simple directions. Most cases of late-onset Alzheimer's disease are "sporadic" (not hereditary), with no identifiable trigger. This differs from early-onset Alzheimer's, which has a strong genetic link. According to the National Institute on Aging, if a parent has the familial form of early-onset Alzheimer's disease, their children have a 50 percent chance of developing the condition.

Diagnosing early-onset Alzheimer's is no different than a late-onset diagnosis. Because there is no test for Alzheimer's, physicians must rule out all other causes for the symptoms, and in fact, the only way to definitively diagnose Alzheimer's is to examine brain tissue after death. There is also no treatment for Alzheimer's disease, and most drug therapies or supplements are aimed at slowing the rate at which symptoms become worse. The benefit from these treatments is often small, and patients and their families may not always notice much of a change.

The pace with which Alzheimer's progresses is different for each patients, but most live anywhere between 3-20 years after the initial diagnosis. Some experts believe that the disease progresses more rapidly among those with an early diagnosis, but this is subject to great controversy. What is known is that as time passes, patients experience greater limitations on activities that used to be routine. The final days, months, and years of life are often a struggle for the patient, as well as the patient's family, friends, and entire support system. 

It is unclear how long Summitt will be able to continue on the Tennessee bench before her condition makes it impossible for her to coach any longer. But because of the person she is, Summit's support system is vast - it includes a university, a state, an entire sport, and beyond - and as she tells fans in her 1999 book ‘Reach for the Summit,' "not too many people have enjoyed as much good fortune as I have, or been as driven." This trademark drive will undoubtedly help Summitt as she takes on her toughest opponent to date.

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