Alzheimer's can progress at different rates, with many younger onset patients remaining engaged and enthusiastic for years after the diagnosis, experts say. That message got a major boost when Pat Summitt, 59, the University of Tennessee's legendary women's basketball coach, recently announced that she had symptoms of Alzheimer's but pledged to continue coaching.
"I love it that people like (Summitt) are out there saying they have it," said Nicole Batsch, director of early stage services at the Alzheimer's Association-Greater Illinois Chapter in Chicago, supporting patients going through the first phase of the disease. "It will help reduce the stigma. For patients, it will help them recognize symptoms."
Before experiencing symptoms, many patients with younger onset dementia had expected to continue working well into their 60s. But, most patients have usually lost their jobs or had to retire early because of their symptoms by the time they are diagnosed.
Still, many with younger onset dementia are determined to remain active in other ways for as long as possible. Keeping busy, gives you a cognitive advantage.
Younger onset Alzheimer's is diagnosed in those younger than age 65 and strikes 250,000 Americans a year, according to the Alzheimer's Association. "More people are being diagnosed with younger onset. Typically, they're in their 50s, but we see them as young as their 30s and 40s.
The first hurdle is often a proper diagnosis, a process of elimination that can take years as doctors tell patients they are too young to have Alzheimer's.
"Without support groups, this can be an isolating disease," said Danielle Arends, a nurse practitioner who co-runs Rush University Medical Center's groups for younger onset patients, their caregivers, their adult children and their younger children. "They learn from each other how to get a diagnosis and how to stay active even if you can't drive anymore. Friends and peers from work may not call anymore, but the others in the support group become their new friends."
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