By Lisa Collier Cool
Aug 24, 2011
Sports fans were shocked and saddened to learn that basketball coach Pat Summit was diagnosed with early-onset dementia at age 59. Summit is renowned for having the most wins in college basketball—men’s or women’s—history, with 1,071 victories, along with two Olympic medals. After months of what she described as “erratic behavior,” including memory lapses, she was evaluated at the Mayo Clinic, where she was diagnosed with symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, a form of dementia. As she battles her toughest opponent, Summit plans to coach as long as possible. “It’s not going to stop me from living my life,” she told the News-Sentinel.
What is dementia—and why do some people, like Pat Summit—develop it at an unusually young age? What are the best ways to protect brain health? To find out more, I talked to Gary Kennedy, MD, director of geriatric psychiatry at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City.
Discover what the brain looks like in 3D.
What is early-onset dementia? Dementia isn’t a specific disease, but a group of symptoms resulting from damage to brain cells or connections between them. To be diagnosed with dementia, people must have impairments in at least two types of brain function. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, affecting 5.4 million Americans. About 200,000 of them have the early-onset form, which starts before age 65, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. One in eight people over 65 have Alzheimer’s, increasing to nearly half of those age 85 and older.
What are the symptoms? The first sign of dementia is typically memory loss that disrupts daily life. Pat Summit told the Washington Post that she sometimes drew blanks on the names of basketball plays and the schedule for team meetings and practices. Other warning signs include confusion, trouble finding the right word or speaking, inability to recognize or use familiar objects (such as forgetting what to do with car keys), changes in personality, and impaired judgment and planning. For the Alzheimer’s Association’s list of 10 warning signs of Alzheimer’s, click here.
What causes dementia? Dementia can have many causes. Some are treatable or even partially reversible, such as a reaction to medication, toxin or an infection, head injuries, brain tumors, and hormonal disorders, including thyroid disease. Others have irreversible causes: Vascular dementia, the second most common form of dementia, results when blood vessels in the brain get clogged with fatty plaque, leading to multiple strokes. Early-onset Alzheimer’s is usually an inherited condition, says Dr. Kennedy, and genes also play a role in 10 to 20 percent of Alzheimer’s cases in people 65 or older. However, the exact cause of Alzheimer’s is not yet known.
Explore the causes and symptoms of Alzheimer’s here.
How is it treated? Some types of dementia can be treated by correcting potentially reversible factors that are sparking the symptoms: For example, if a medication reaction was making the person confused and forgetful, the doctor would switch the person to different treatment or adjust the dosage. While there’s no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, medications can noticeably or mildly improve symptoms in 60 percent of patients, while the other 40 percent get no benefit, says Dr. Kennedy. Two types of medication are FDA-approved: cholinesterase inhibitors and partial glutamate antagonists. Neither of them slows the progression of the invariably fatal disease, but in the best-case scenario, the person’s symptoms may regress, so they regain the level of function they had six months or a year earlier.
What are the best ways to prevent dementia? While there is no surefire way to prevent dementia, these tactics may help reduce your risk for both Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia, says Dr. Kennedy:
Exercise 30 minutes a day. Physical activities, from brisk walking to jogging, swimming, biking or aerobics, improve blood vessel health, which could help keep your brain well nourished with the nutrients it needs.
Reduce your cholesterol levels. Lowering cholesterol levels through weight loss, exercise, a healthier diet, and if necessary, medication, could reduce your risk for clogged vessels in the brain that lead to vascular dementia. Research also suggests that people with normal cholesterol levels at midlife are less likely to get Alzheimer’s disease.
Take classes. People with a higher level of education appear to have a lower rate of mental decline as they age. It’s thought that education may help the brain develop “cognitive reserves” that help the brain function normally longer even if it develops the abnormalities that lead to dementia.
Control risk factors. What’s good for your heart also benefits the brain, so other strategies that may help ward off dementia include avoiding smoking, keeping your blood pressure within normal limits, and maintaining a normal weight.