East Tennessee was stunned in 2011 when University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt announced she was retiring at the relatively young age of 59 after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Summitt was a coaching legacy, holding the record for most wins at any level at 1,098. She won eight national championships, and was largely recognized as a founding matriarch of the game of women’s basketball.
But within five years of announcing her unexpected retirement, she had lost her battle. She died on June 28, 2016 — exactly two weeks after her 64th birthday.
When Summitt announced that she had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, she instantly raised awareness of the disease as its most easily-recognized victim. It was the same disease that claimed the life of President Ronald Reagan at the age of 93 in 2004. And it’s the same disease that impacts nearly five million other Americans.
Still little is known about Alzheimer’s disease, especially when it afflicts younger people, like Summitt. Researchers have worked avidly to determine risk factors and environmental contributors to the disease, to little avail.
But one thing that is known is that the number of people it impacts is rising; researchers estimate that more than 13 million Americans will suffer from Alzheimer’s disease by the year 2050. For that reason, the month of June is set aside each year as Alzheimer’s awareness month, in an effort to educate the American public on the illness.
What is Alzheimer’s?
The simple definition of Alzheimer’s is dementia. While it isn’t the only cause of dementia, it accounts for as many as four out of every five cases. There is no cure, and it is progressive, meaning it will cause a slow, degenerative effect on the brain, and eventually death.
Most people who are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease are older — like President Reagan. It’s almost always diagnosed after the age of 65, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that only five percent of Alzheimer’s patients will begin to show symptoms before the age of 60.
But anyone can get Alzheimer’s disease; it has been diagnosed as young as 27. Unfortunately, those who are diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s typically see the disease progress more quickly. Reagan battled Alzheimer’s for 10 years before it claimed his life in 2004. Summitt died only five years after she was diagnosed.
Experts haven’t determined many definitive risk factors for Alzheimer’s, but three are clear: age, family history and genetics.
The age factor is the most definitive. Most people who develop Alzheimer’s are aged 65 or older; diagnosis of the disease is rare in patients younger than 40.
As for family history, researchers have found that people who have an immediate family member with Alzheimer’s are more likely to get it themselves.
There are also certain genes that have been linked to Alzheimer’s. For example, people with Down’s syndrome will invariably contract Alzheimer’s disease if they live long enough, because the two conditions impact the same chromosome.
Early symptoms of Alzheimer’s include memory loss that affects daily activities, such as forgetting appointments. As the disease worsens with time, patients may have trouble with tasks they’ve long been familiar with, such as using a microwave, problem-solving difficulties, trouble with their speech or with writing, becoming disoriented about times or places, decreased judgment, decreased personal hygiene, mood and personality changes and withdrawal from friends and family.
Typically, Alzheimer’s symptoms progress slowly, and there are drugs that can slow that progression even further. Sometimes, though, patients’ conditions worsen more rapidly.
Doctors break Alzheimer’s progression into seven stages, beginning with Stage 1, in which there are no symptoms present. In Stage 2, the earliest symptoms — such as forgetfulness — begin to appear. Most patients aren’t diagnosed, however, until Stage 4, when they begin to suffer from further memory loss and the inability to perform everyday tasks. By Stage 5, most patients require help with their daily lives and by Stage 6 even basic tasks, such as dressing or eating, become difficult. Stage 7 is the final, and most severe, stage of Alzheimer’s.
There is no definitive diagnosis for Alzheimer’s. Instead, doctors begin by asking simple questions, and will use neurological exams like CT scans to rule out other diagnoses, such as Parkinson’s disease or stroke. If Alzheimer’s is suspected, doctors may order blood tests to check for genes that can indicate the patient is at an increased risk for the disease.
Although considerable research of Alzheimer’s disease continues, there are no known prevention methods that have been clearly demonstrated. However, researchers are focusing on several core areas that can prevent cognitive decline in general.
For one, they say, stop smoking. Then, exercise regularly, eat a plant-based diet, consume more antioxidants, maintain an active social life, and try cognitive training exercises.