Pat Summitt to Keep Coaching Despite Dementia Diagnosis

PHOTO: Lady Vols basketball head coach will keep working despite devastating diagnosis.
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Pat Summitt plans to keep coaching women's college basketball despite her diagnoses of early-onset dementia, she said.

In a statement to the University of Tennessee and her Lady Vol basketball team, Summitt. 59, said she would not let Alzheimer's-type dementia force her into early retirement.

"I love being your coach, and the privilege to go to work every day with our outstanding Lady Vol basketball student-athletes."

After months of memory lapses, Summitt recently visited the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where doctors diagnosed her having with a rare form of Alzheimer's-type dementia that strikes people younger than 65, who often have a family history of Alzheimer's disease.

But the tough Tennessee native, who has won more games in her 36-year coaching career than any other college coach ever, won't give up easily.

"Obviously, I realize I may have some limitations with this condition, since there will be some good days and some bad days," she said. "For that reason, I will be relying on my outstanding coaching staff like never before."

Dementia risk increases with age. Alzheimer's disease -- the commonest form of dementia -- affects up to half of people older than 85. But early-onset dementia poses special problems for younger, otherwise healthy people, many of whom balance busy jobs and young families.

"Learning about the disease when people have mild symptoms is very important in terms of planning the future, maximizing their ability to work and have appropriate supports in their jobs," said Dr. Steven DeKosky, a neurologist and dean of the University of Virginia School of Medicine.

Pat Summitt Won't Stop Coaching Despite Dementia

On top of taking care of business, people with early-onset dementia often take care of children or parents -- a commitment they may no longer be able to meet, DeKosky said.

Summitt's son Tyler, 20, called his mom's courage and honesty about her diagnosis inspiring.

"Pat Summitt is not only my mom but also an incredible role model and mentor for me," he said in a statememt. "This will be a new chapter for my mom and I, and we will continue to work as a team like we always have done."

Although there is no cure for Alzheimer's-type dementia, there are treatments. Drugs that block the breakdown of acetycholine -- the neurotransmitter released by the neurons that die off during the disease -- can help reduce symptoms. And behavioral interventions that keep the mind active may help build up a cognitive reserve to stave off severe symptoms.

But like Summitt said, there will be good days and bad days.

"It is true that some days are better than others. And both your own insights and the careful observation of people who know you well and care for you is helpful in knowing how much, if any, help you need on a day to day basis," DeKosky said.

The course of early-onset dementia is variable, so it's unclear how quickly or slowly Summitt's symptoms will progress.

"Some people remain cognitively functional for many, many years. Others may progress more rapidly," said David Teplow, a professor of neurology and director of the Mary S. Easton Center for Alzheimer's Disease Research at UCLA, as he described a disease course that could range from five to 20 years. Although many patients can continue working for a while, they're ultimately forced to quit jobs, stop driving and accept more and more supervision, Teplow said.

But for now, Summitt is determined to go on coaching her Lady Vol team, and has the full support of its members and the University of Tennessee.

"Pat Summitt is our head coach, and she will continue to be," vice chancellor and athletics director Joan Cronan said in a statement. "She is an icon not only for women's basketball but for all of women's athletics."

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