Understanding Early-Onset Dementia

Women’s basketball coach Pat Summit recently announced she had been diagnosed with early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, at the age of 59. She is a legend at the University of Tennessee where she has coached for the last 37 seasons and has amassed more wins than anyone else in college basketball history. For many, Summit’s announcement brings not only shock and disbelief, but also questions about one of the more uncommon types of dementia.

Early-onset dementia is a rare form of the disorder where the onset of the cognitive symptoms begins before the age of 65. It has been estimated that less than 5 percent of all those who have a dementia diagnosis fall into this category. Most who are diagnosed are in their 50s, although there have been documented cases of people in their 30s and 40s with the disease.

Early-onset dementia has a unique set problems: Those receiving the diagnosis at a younger age are often still in careers, have younger children, and can have difficulty finding support services for which they are eligible. In order to maximize a person’s ability to participate in normal daily activities, as well as take full advantage of the treatments available, early identification remains a priority.

Obtaining an accurate diagnosis of the disease, however, can be challenging. Many health care professionals consider dementia to be exclusive to older adults, and therefore the signs and symptoms of the early-onset variant are often misdiagnosed. Further complicating the matter is that the symptoms of early-onset dementia can vary, with memory loss not always being the most notable symptom initially. Personality changes, altered judgment, difficulty with problem-solving, or increased confusion in familiar tasks are only a few examples of the cognitive changes that can be observed.

When she made her diagnosis public, Coach Summit voiced her determination to continue coaching and to fight the disease. In doing so, she has given countless others with the disease a reason to fight.

It is worth noting that Coach Summit spoke clearly about her intention to use her support system to help cope with the challenges ahead. The importance of having the support of friends and loved ones cannot be overstated. Understanding that you are not alone and that support is available is often the first step to healthy coping.

If you have concerns about your cognitive health, or that of a loved one, it is important to talk to a physician or mental health professional who specializes in these types of medical issues. The only way to determine whether memory changes are related to normal aging, or possibly a more serious condition, is to be evaluated. Psychologists offer a number of tests that can help identify dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

For more information, please visit any of the other blog entries on aging, or view the helpful information on websites for the Alzheimer’s Association and the Mayo Clinic.


Photos by aaronisnotcool and Tennessee Journalist (via Flickr)

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One Response to “Understanding Early-Onset Dementia”

  1. Gloria Wagner   January 1, 2012 at 6:21 pm

    I need more informaton on Front Temporal Dementia. I am 61, and diagnosed from Neurological Psycological testing and a PET test. I also have Ataxia and seizures. I am very confused about how long it will be before I will before I will need assistance.