Longtime women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt died this morning of complications from Alzheimer’s disease after being diagnosed with early onset dementia in 2011. Her death brings attention to a debilitating diagnosis that impacts more than 5 million Americans.
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive brain disorder that severely impacts memory, thinking skills and the ability to take care of oneself and communicate with loved ones. It’s a subset of dementia that often begins to show symptoms in adults in their mid to late 60s.
According to Jaqueline Mohs, M.D., associate program director for geriatric fellowship at Beaumont Hospital, Dearborn, it’s a terminal disease but the progression depends on each individual person and their care path.
“The first few years after getting the diagnosis can still be a high-quality time of life,” she said. “I think the way to make it so is through education and understanding.”
Loss of short term memory is one of the first signs. This is a common experience with aging adults, which makes it hard to tell if someone is actually experiencing early signs of dementia and needs further evaluation.
The top ten early signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s include:
- memory loss
- challenges in planning or solving problems
- difficulty completing familiar tasks
- trouble with vision
- trouble following or joining a conversation
- misplacing things
- decreased judgment
- social withdrawal
- mood and personality changes
“It can be frightening. No one wants to have dementia, but if you can overcome that fear and undergo the evaluation then it really does help with that planning and it really does help with how you live your life now while you still can.”
There are technologies and other resources available to those with Alzheimer’s and their families that can help address the memory deficit such as electronic reminders for medications and meal times.
Dr. Mohs said it’s the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. Though terminal, it can take years to get to the end stage where patients are no longer able to walk and talk, and ultimately forget how to breathe and how to eat.
“Some of the best advice I can offer is not to be sad,” she said. “It’s a hard life, but try to be as happy as possible. It really does help with the quality of life of the person who has Alzheimer’s and their caregivers. Be accepting and allow yourself to feel joy even though you or a loved one has this disease."
(PHOTO: Wade Payne/AP)