August 25th, 2011 at 1:33 pm
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Pat Summitt’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis has people asking questions

by Carol Bursack

It’s bound to happen. When any disease is discussed frequently in the news, people begin to look for signs of it in themselves and others. Alzheimer’s (AD) has been in news headlines nearly every week for months, since huge numbers of aging boomers are increasingly at risk. Alzheimer’s typically strikes individuals over the age of 65. However, Pat Summitt’s public announcement of her early onset Alzheimer’s diagnosis–at age 59–has not only left millions of fans stunned, it has younger people peering into their brains, anxious to learn if something sinister is happening to them as well.

Alzheimer’s: How worried should younger people be?

According to the Mayo Clinic, only 5 percent of the people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s will get early onset AD, which is Alzheimer’s diagnosed before the age of 65. That should put many of your minds at rest. Alzheimer’s, like many dementias, causes problems with short-term memory, decision making and behavior. Generally speaking, symptoms develop over time, sometimes slowly over decades before people recognize any significant changes.

Alzheimer’s symptoms: what do I look for?

  1. Change in memory. It’s not the “where are my keys?” type of forgetfulness, but the “what are my keys for?” type of forgetfulness that is considered one of the first signs of dementia.
  2. Behavioral changes. These changes are now acknowledged by some experts to be the sign of Alzheimer’s that family members notice first. If a sweet-tempered mother seems to have changed into a short-fused, frantic stranger, her family will take note. Maybe some forgetfulness was there before, but that could have been chalked up to age. Changes in personality and behavior can be more disturbing.
  3. Changes in executive function. These include the ability to plan or problem solve. If they are significant enough to affect daily life, then they are a cause for concern.
  4. Confusion. A prime example is not remembering how to drive to a familiar place–a key sign that something may be cognitively wrong.
  5. Misplacing things. In addition, the inability to retrace one’s steps can be a symptom that needs checking.

Developing Alzheimer’s: change is the operative word

When it comes to concern about whether or not a person has Alzheimer’s, you look for changes in cognitive function. If you are a chronic key loser and frequently forget your cell phone, you aren’t necessarily getting Alzheimer’s. But if you have always been exceptionally organized, and suddenly can’t keep track of things, you should see a doctor. Your problem could be stress or some other factor, but it could be a sign of dementia.

Pat Summitt noticed she was making mistakes that were not characteristic of her style. When this continued over several months, she went to the Mayo Clinic for testing, and that is where she received her diagnosis. Summitt once again displayed her courageous, competitive spirit by announcing her disease so early in the game. Her public announcement will help others understand the changes that will inevitably come in her coaching performance. By coming forward, she is also helping countless others by raising awareness of this debilitating disease.

Awareness is one way to keep funding available so researchers can find a prevention or cure.

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