Coach Pat Summitt’s battle with Alzheimer’s inspires many to fight

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) - Five years have passed since longtime Tennessee Women's Basketball Coach Pat Summitt first announced that she was diagnosed with early-onset dementia, Alzheimer's type, but there is still a lot of confusion surrounding the disease.

"The word dementia is an umbrella term," said Brandi Medina with the Mid South Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association.

She said roughly 70 percent of those diagnosed with dementia have Alzheimer's.

"If you found out someone had cancer, one of your first questions would be what kind, because brain cancer's a lot different than bone cancer," she said. "There are many different types of dementia or causes, we say both. Alzheimers is the number one type of dementia."

Early-onset dementia includes anyone diagnosed before the age of 65. Summitt was 59 at the time.

UPDATE: Summitt died June 28 at age 64.

"The disease spreads throughout your brain and eventually it reaches your brain stem," said Medina.

Meaning this terminal disease goes beyond just memory loss, it affects your body's ability to swallow and even breathe.

"Of the top ten causes of death in the United States, Alzheimer's is number six," she said. "Out of those same top ten causes of death, it is the only one that cannot be prevented, treated or even slowed down."

While Summitt's fight ended, her impact will certainly endure.

"She has made a monumental difference in coming out and talking about that to the public," said Medina. "We really admire Pat Summitt for coming out and publicly telling everyone about her diagnosis. Because one of the big parts of our mission is to increase awareness of the disease, of what support services are out there."

Summitt coached Tennessee to eight national championships in her 38 seasons at the helm. She recorded 1,098 career victories, which is the most in Division I college basketball history for a men's or women's coach, before stepping down in 2012, one year after announcing she had early-onset dementia. She continues to hold a position as head coach emeritus of the Tennessee women's basketball team.

Since her diagnosis, Summitt has helped to draw more attention to the disease creating the Pat Summitt Foundation, which focuses on awareness, advocacy and research. The Pat Summitt Alzheimer's Clinic is scheduled to open at the University of Tennessee Medical Center this December.

"Alzheimer's is not something to keep quiet and not share," said Medina. "We say it takes a village, when you care for someone with Alzheimer's. It is overwhelming."

To learn more about programs and services for those battling dementia and Alzheimer's in the Tennessee Valley, click here.

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