Pat Summitt puts Alzheimer's in center court

Pat Summitt puts Alzheimer's in center court

August 27th, 2011 by Naomi Jagoda in News

Tennessee head coach Pat Summitt watches her team play against Austin Peay.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

By publicly announcing that she has early onset Alzheimer's disease, UT women's basketball coach Pat Summitt may increase attention on the progressive and fatal illness, local experts say.

And that may lead to heightened awareness, testing and fundraising.

The 59-year-old coach's announcement Tuesday puts her on a list of high-profile people who have discussed their serious illnesses in public, including former first lady Betty Ford's drug addiction, NBA player Earvin "Magic" Johnson's HIV and cyclist Lance Armstrong's testicular cancer.

Felicia McGhee-Hilt, who teaches communications at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, said when public figures such as Summitt come forth with their diagnoses, "people are able to put a face on a disease."

Such public disclosures may reduce the stigma of diseases, which can lead to more people seeking screenings, said Rae Bond, executive director of the Chattanooga and Hamilton County Medical Society.

Bond added that Summitt's diagnosis at an early age particularly may lead to increased awareness about Alzheimer's, much as actor Michael J. Fox's announcement in 1998 that he had Parkinson's disease brought new attention to that disorder. He was 30 when diagnosed in 1991.

"It should raise awareness that this can strike at any age," she said.

Amy French, manager of programs and education for the Chattanooga-area office of the Alzheimer's Association, said increased awareness and testing are particularly important because Alzheimer's can't be stopped or reversed, but available medications are important to slow the progression.

Early onset Alzheimer's is "often the more aggressive kind of the disease," she said.

Summitt's disclosure also could lead to an increase in donations and involvement in Alzheimer's-related causes, French said.

The Alzheimer's Association is holding editions of the fundraising Walk to End Alzheimer's across Southeastern Tennessee in September and October, and French said she would not be surprised if the events had increased attendance because of Summitt's announcement.

"People always want to do something when someone they care about is affected," she said.

Summitt has been the head women's basketball coach at the University of Tennessee since 1975 and won eight NCAA championships. Her announcement about Alzheimer's may be particularly valuable in Tennessee, Bond said.

People tend to respond to tragedies when they hit closer to home, she said, and Summitt is "truly an icon in Tennessee."