THURSDAY, April 19, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- Less than one year after revealing that she had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease, celebrated women's basketball coach Pat Summitt is stepping aside as head coach of the University of Tennessee Lady Vols team.
"I've loved being the head coach at Tennessee for 38 years, but I recognize that the time has come to move into the future and to step into a new role," the Hall of Famer said in a statement issued Wednesday by the school, the Associated Press reported.
The decision to retire was only a matter of time since Summitt, 59, the winningest coach in college basketball history, announced Aug. 23 that she had early-onset Alzheimer's disease. During her last season as head coach, Summitt received enormous support from players and fans, but her every move was closely watched to see how she was doing, the news service said.
Mickie DeMoss, who served as Summitt's assistant for many years, said she's happy for her former head coach, who will assume the title head coach emeritus.
"Her health and well-being are most important to me," DeMoss told the AP. "She now can focus on doing things for Pat. She has given 38 years to UT and to women's basketball. Now, she can do what's best for herself, every day. I'm happy for my friend, and happy that she can begin a new chapter in her life."
Summitt will take on new duties with the basketball program, including helping with recruiting, watching practice, and helping coaches analyze practices and games. She will also serve as a spokeswoman in the fight against Alzheimer's.
"If anyone asks, you can find me observing practice or in my office," Summitt said. "Coaching is the great passion of my life, and the job to me has always been an opportunity to work with our student-athletes and help them discover what they want. I will continue to make them my passion. I love our players and my fellow coaches, and that's not going to change."
About 500,000 people in the United States, or about 5 percent of those with Alzheimer's, have early-onset Alzheimer's, also called "young-onset" because it's diagnosed before age 65, said Dr. Zoe Arvanitakis, a neurologist with the Alzheimer's Disease Center at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. Though rarer still, diagnoses among people in their 30s and 40s aren't unheard of, she noted.
"In contrast to what many people think, Alzheimer's disease does not only affect older persons. It can also affect persons in their middle adult ages," Arvanitakis told HealthDay last year.
Symptoms for early-onset Alzheimer's are the same as for late-onset disease, experts said. Summit said last August that she initially thought her forgetfulness was a side effect of a rheumatoid arthritis drug, until Mayo Clinic doctors told her she was showing mild signs of the dementia.
Typically, early-onset Alzheimer's progresses more quickly than late-onset Alzheimer's, experts said.
Still, the time from which people first have symptoms to the time they've lost so much of their mental abilities that they're truly disabled varies widely from person to person, Dr. Gary Kennedy, director of the division of geriatric psychiatry at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, told HealthDay.
For older patients, that may be 10 to 15 years; for younger ones, time to disability is usually around five years, Kennedy said.
A recent change in federal law enables patients with early-onset Alzheimer's to receive Social Security disability insurance and supplemental security income more easily, Arvanitakis said.
"There used to be significant roadblocks," she said. "I remember five, 10 years ago trying to help my patients get on disability being told, 'What proof do you have they have Alzheimer's disease?' It was hard for me to convince them it was true."
Because it's relatively uncommon, people in their 40s and 50s with Alzheimer's can have difficulty getting a diagnosis. Apathy and loss of interest in things once enjoyed can be one symptom of Alzheimer's. But that's sometimes mistaken for depression, Arvanitakis said.
Several gene mutations are believed to contribute to Alzheimer's in younger people, and early-onset Alzheimer's can run in families that have a hereditary component. But for other people, what causes Alzheimer's is unknown, experts said.
In addition to having a close family member such as a mother, father or sibling with early-onset Alzheimer's, having a major depressive episode as an adult also appears associated with going on to develop Alzheimer's, Kennedy said.
There are no medications that can slow or reverse the underlying biological processes that lead to damage in the brain. But like older people, younger people can benefit from certain drugs that boost levels of a neurotransmitter in the brain that is important for forming memories, Arvanitakis said.
High blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, heart rhythm abnormalities and high cholesterol can reduce blood flow to the brain and lead to "vascular dementia," another form of progressive decline in memory and thinking skills, Kennedy said. Research has shown that many people with Alzheimer's also have vascular changes in the brain.
To combat that, "it makes good sense to follow a heart-healthy lifestyle," he said.
Experts have praised Summitt for sharing her struggle with the public.
"When you're a very public figure and you share something so personal like your own illness, it brings attention to it, and bringing attention to this devastating illness might benefit others," Arvanitakis said. "It could mean more research will be done on it. It will be recognized earlier and people could have access to treatment earlier."
The U.S. National Institute on Aging has more on early onset Alzheimer's.