Pat Summitt’s decision to continue coaching the University of Tennessee women’s basketball team might not be the most medically advisable route in the wake of her dementia diagnosis.
The decision, however, is typical Summitt, who once recruited a player while in labor with her only child, Tyler, currently a redshirt sophomore on the Tennessee men’s basketball team.
“It’s a very hard thing to decide,” said Daniel Alkon, scientific director and professor at West Virginia University’s Blanchette Rockefeller Neurosciences Institute. “My feeling is that you should try to live normally but not stressfully.”
Alkon, one of the nation’s top dementia researchers, applauded Summitt’s decision to delegate many of her duties because of her recent diagnosis of early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, a disclosure the 59-year-old coach made Tuesday.
“I plan to continue to be your coach,” Summitt said in a statement. “Obviously, I realize I may have some limitations with this condition since there will be some good days and some bad days. For that reason, I will be relying on my outstanding coaching staff like never before. We have always collaborated on every facet of Lady Vol basketball; and now you will see (assistant coaches) Holly Warlick, Dean Lockwood and Mickie DeMoss taking on more responsibility as their duties will change significantly."
Summitt, who has led the Vols to eight national titles and 1,071 victories, went to the doctor at the conclusion of last season and was ultimately diagnosed at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. The diagnosis was likely made after other forms of dementia — like Parkinson’s disease and dietary deficiencies — were ruled out, Alkon said.
"Pat came to us with concerns about her health and our preliminary evaluation was suggestive of dementia,” Amy Bentley, Summitt’s primary care physician in Knoxville, said in a statement. “Because of her young age, Pat was referred to neurology for formal evaluation. After extensive testing, a diagnosis of early Alzheimer’s was made and appropriate treatment was initiated."
Alzheimer’s disease is misdiagnosed about half the time and its root cause of dementia is often not known until an autopsy is performed. Alkon is currently working with researchers on a test that uses biomarkers found in skin cells to identify the specific type of dementia, although there are currently few treatment options.
“Medications can provide a small benefit in dealing with symptoms, but unfortunately they don’t slow the course of the disease,” said Joshua Grill, a professor at UCLA and director of the Katherine and Benjamin Kagan Alzheimer’s Disease Treatment Development Program.
Summitt is one of an estimated 500,000 Americans 65 and younger who are living with Alzheimer’s and other dementias, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Grill said he’s seen the lives of the many younger patients he’s studied continue without severe changes, at least in the early going.
“There is a diagnosis of functional impairment, but our patients with the disease lead lives there they derive tremendous pleasure from,” Grill said. “They continue to work and I think (Summitt) can, as well.”
Summitt is hardly the first personality to be given an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Late President Ronald Reagan and former University of North Carolina men’s basketball coach Dean Smith were diagnosed with the disease — both after leaving those respective posts.
Summitt, even eschewing some of her responsibilities, has a chance to knock down some long-held stereotypes about the disease.
“She’s kind of saying, ‘My life is not over,’ ” Grill said. “Hopefully she’ll be able to break some of the stigmas that exist. Everyone is at risk when they get older. Nobody is impervious to this disease. It affects every ethnic, racial and education group just the same. It knows no bounds.”