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Video: Basketball coach diagnosed with dementia

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    >>> eight national championships , 29 conference titles. she is simply the winningest in college basketball , male or female. better than bobny knight. pat summit the legendary coach of tennessee's laddie vols for 38 seasons has now revealed she has been diagnosed with early onset alzheimer 's at the age of only 59.

    >> earlier this year the doctors at the mayo clinic diagnosed me with early on set dementia, alzheimer 's type.

    >> pat summit says that she will stay on as the head coach of the lady vols and rely more heavily on her talented staff of assistants. we're joined by nbc news chief scientist . what kind of prognosis does pat summit face at the age of 59d?

    >> unfortunately there's no treatment to do anything but cause a temporary improvement in anything. everybody who has the disease progresses at a different rate. we really don't know what pat summit 's future is going to be like. clearly he is in a situation now uh-huh where increasing numbers of people are going to find themselves which is -- doctors are getting better at diagnosing alzheimer 's earlier and we have to understand that alzheimer 's is a disease that takes place over decades. and begins to sent in long before you have any symptoms. she has symptoms, but with the help of friends she's going to be and her associates she's going to be able to continue coach farg while. but for coaching for a while. but unless a drug comes along in the next few years, the prognosis is it will continue to worsen until what happens to all patients they die of the disease. the course is very variable from person to person.

    >>> and how vital is the research right now? i know a lot is being spent, how close are we to anything that you would consider a breakthrough?

    >> it's a long way off, unfortunately. one of the thing that's going on right now is there's a lot of effort that's being put into finding early signs even before people have any memory problems of what approaching alzheimer 's. the motivation for what is that doctors now believe that their only hope of finding smag that will change the course of the disease is to intervene before the symptoms even start. so as a result of that a lot of people are going to be finding out that they have alzheimer 's in their future. there's big debates about individuals if they want to know that. the motivation for that research which includes brain scans and spinal taps and blood tests to look for early symptoms is to find a drug, pharmaceutical companies and other medical care companies are behind this research because the hope is that we'll find a drug. but i think the realistic estimate is unless something really surprising happens, we're decades away from an effective treatment. and because of the population in the united states is aging so quickly, we can see just a massive epidemic of this, and we're going to see more and more people, famous as pat summitt is and not so famous, who are learning early on that they have alzheimer 's disease.

    >> well, it is a teachable moment. she is very brave to be doing what she is doing

    >> indeed.

By Robert Bazell Chief science and health correspondent
NBC News
updated 8/24/2011 5:26:41 PM ET 2011-08-24T21:26:41

The revelation that Pat Summitt, the 59-year-old women’s basketball coach at the University of Tennessee, not only has Alzheimer’s disease, but plans to continue her career, might seem astounding at first. But doctors expect such disclosures to become ever more common as experts get better at detecting the disease in its earliest stages.

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Indeed, in research out today in the journal Neurology, doctors from the Mayo Clinic report that by using certain brain scans they are growing ever closer to identifying people who will get Alzheimer’s before memory loss or any noticeable symptoms set in.

Such tests are still not there. Even when experts detect the onset of Alzheimer’s there are no medications that slow its inevitable progress. It's the search for such medications that motivates much of the research into early detection.

Scientists now believe that Alzheimer’s is a progressive condition with changes in the brain beginning decades before any symptoms appear and the only hope for an effective treatment may be to start treatment long before the onset of symptoms.

Story: Predicting Alzheimer's: Would you want to know?

The Mayo Clinic researchers used brain scans on 311 people in their 70s and 80s with no symptoms of cognitive decline to determine the level of amyloid-beta deposits, or plaques, in their brains. The study found that 33 percent of the participants had significantly high levels of plaque deposits along with high molecule levels of myoinositol/creatine and choline/creatine in their brains. People with high levels of the brain molecules scored lower on several cognitive tests, regardless of the amount of plaque detected.

Scientists believe it might be necessary to treat patients with amyloid-lowering drugs long before significant symptoms of cognitive decline appear. However, it likely will take years to prove any of the drugs are effective.

But as Summitt plans to demonstrate, with the understanding of having the early stages and with assistance from others on her staff, it is still possible to continue a productive life until the disease worsens. Early onset Alzheimer's — when symptoms appear before age 65 — is uncommon, affecting only about 5 percent of all cases. It often runs in families and is linked to three genes.

Story: Summitt will attack dementia with her typical furor

Everyone with Alzheimer's progresses at a different rate and it's unclear what the Hall of Fame coach's future is going to be like. She has said she won't accept a "pity party" and realizes there will be "some good days and some bad days."

It will long be argued what effect the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s had on the careers of former President Ronald Reagan and former Prime Minister Thatcher of Britain. Both ended up with severe dementia after they left office, but both functioned successfully while they will still serving, at a time when they may have been in the early stages of the disease.

As earlier and earlier tests become available, some people may not want the information. But others do, so they and their families can plan for the challenges ahead — and in many cases, like coach Summitt — continue to function as long as possible.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

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