Pat Summitt, Shannon Bobbitt

Pat Summitt has dementia. The beloved University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach announced yesterday that at the age of 59, she has been diagnosed with early onset dementia.

Despite the diagnosis, Coach Summitt plans to continue coaching her team the Lady Vols. Can someone with dementia such as this manage to coach a team in a high-pressure situation? That will remain to be seen, but if anyone is up to the task, it’s Pat Summitt. Summitt is a much revered and respected figure in women’s sports with the distinction of being the all-time winningest coach in NCAA basketball history of either a men’s or women’s team in any division.

Other than the treatment Coach Summitt is receiving, she may want to consider getting out on the court with her team. Recent research has pointed to exercise as one way to stave off dementia-related symptoms. A study out of the University of Pittsburgh found that older adults who were physically active suffered from less brain degradation than their sedentary peers. Subsequently, for the adults that exercised the areas of the brain that are usually associated with age-related shrinkage didn’t shrink. The subjects who walked the most had a significantly reduced risk of developing cognitive impairment and dementia.

Another study published in the Journals of Gerontology found that older adults who exercised had better memory, brain processing speeds, and overall functioning.  Exercise has also been shown to reduce stress, fatigue, and depression.

Metabolic syndrome has also been linked to a higher incidence of dementia. Why the link? Metabolic syndrome causes vascular problems. There is evidence that age-related memory problems may be the result of inefficient blood flow. In particular, vascular dementia is a type of dementia that is caused by reduced blood flow to the brain.

Staying positive is always helpful in fighting anything and it seems Coach Summitt has the right attitude about fighting this illness. When asked about her upcoming season, she was quoted on the University of Tennessee’s website as saying, “There’s not going to be any pity party and I’ll make sure of that.”