Pat Summitt, at 59, Takes on Alzheimer's

Tennessee coach is an instant beacon for early detection, research, and public awareness.

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Pat Summitt's disclosure that she has early onset dementia is sure to trigger a surge in attention to Alzheimer's disease. The iconic Tennessee women's basketball coach, now getting ready for her 38th season, provided a characteristically direct and no-nonsense review of her condition. She vowed to continue to make the most of her life and avoid any "pity party" that anyone might want to throw for her.

[See 7 Lifestyle Behaviors Linked to Alzheimer's.]

It is not hard to project Summitt as having the same kind of impact on Alzheimer's that the late Jim Valvano has had on cancer. The charismatic former basketball coach at North Carolina State University died of cancer more than 18 years ago at age 47. Since then, the V Foundation for Cancer Research has raised more than $100 million, and Valvano's enthusiasm and love of life are still very much with us.

Summitt, who is 59, surely must have known that her decision to be open and transparent about her progressive dementia would make her a powerful symbol for the struggle against Alzheimer's, a disease that already affects more than five million Americans, according to the Alzheimer's Association.

The day after Summitt's story broke, the Association had placed her picture on its website, along with several links to additional information about younger-onset Alzheimer's. Anyone even approaching middle age should check them out, particularly, the 10 warning signs of Alzheimer's.

[See 8 Alzheimer's Financial Protection Tips.]

I wince at such instant exploitation of someone else's misfortune, but of course am engaged in similar behavior. Summitt is such a public figure that the Association's response is not surprising. And as anyone familiar with Alzheimer's knows, this devastating illness needs all the attention and financial support it can get.

Recent research has provided tantalizing peeks at possible breakthroughs in early diagnosis and treatment of Alzheimer's. Right now, however, there is no cure for the disease and only modest headway in retarding its devastating progression and worsening effects. In the United States as well as other countries, surging populations of older citizens make the probable impact of Alzheimer's one of our chief medical and social concerns.

So, many thanks to Pat Summitt for taking on this latest challenge. Best wishes to her and her family.

Twitter: @PhilMoeller

Corrected on 8/25/11: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt.