Summitt Puts Spotlight on Early Onset Alzheimer’s

Pat Summitt (Credit: University of Tennessee)

Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt recently revealed that she has been diagnosed with early onset dementia that will eventually lead to Alzheimer’s disease. Experts from the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center explain what a diagnosis might mean for patients like Summitt.

“In contrast to what many people think, Alzheimer’s disease does not only affect older persons. It can also affect persons in their middle adult ages,” said Dr. Zoe Arvanitakis, a cognitive neurologist at Rush University Medical Center’s Alzheimer’s Disease Center.

We know that Alzheimer’s disease is synonymous with aging and the elderly — with nearly half of people over the age of 85 being afflicted with the devastating disease. But it’s not just the elderly that face this bleak diagnosis. It also affects 5 percent of people under the age of 65.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than 5 million people in the U.S. are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, including 200,000 younger than 65.

“The symptoms for early onset Alzheimer’s, when a person is under 65, are the same as for late-onset disease,” said Danielle Arends, a nurse practitioner at the Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

Symptoms of the disease include misplacing objects, trouble finding the right word and getting lost on familiar routes. Typically, early onset Alzheimer’s progresses more quickly than late-onset Alzheimer’s, according to the experts at Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center.

“Because it’s relatively uncommon, people in their 40s and 50s with Alzheimer’s can have difficulty getting a diagnosis,” Arvanitakis said. “Apathy and loss of interest in things once enjoyed can be one symptom of Alzheimer’s. But that’s sometimes mistaken for depression.”

Several gene mutations are believed to contribute to Alzheimer’s in younger people, and early onset Alzheimer’s can run in families that have a hereditary component. But for other people, what causes Alzheimer’s is unknown,

Patients do not have to give up their daily activities. For example, Summitt, 59, doesn’t plan on giving up coaching. In fact, she’s been encouraged to continue.

“If you’re the type of person who is energetic and wants to fight it and do everything possible, we do have patients that live with this diagnosis for many years and continue to lead a fulfilling and productive life,” Arvanitakis said.

There are support groups for people with Alzheimer’s disease, but patients with younger-onset Alzheimer’s  may not be able to relate to people who are older. At Rush’s Alzheimer’s Disease Center, there is a support group designed just for people with younger-onset Alzheimer’s. Watch an overview of the program on the video below.

News media:  If you are interested in interviewing one of our experts in the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center or would like to interview a patient with early onset Alzheimer’s disease, please contact Deb Song or Nancy Difiore in media relations at (312) 942-5579.

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