Hall of Fame women's basketball coach Pat Summitt died Tuesday at age 64 after a five-year battle with early-onset Alzheimer's disease.
Although Alzheimer's disease shortens people's life spans, it is usually not the direct cause of a person's death, according to the Alzheimer's Society, a charity in the United Kingdom for people with dementia. Rather, people die from complications from the illness, such as infections or blood clots.
Alzheimer's is a progressive brain disease in which abnormal protein deposits build up in the brain, which causes brain cells to die. The illness is best known for causing memory loss, but it also has other debilitating effects on the body, and can affect people's ability to move and eat by themselves.
Alzheimer's patients may have difficulty swallowing, and they may inhale food, which can result in aspiration pneumonia, Dr. Marc L. Gordon, chief of neurology at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Queens, New York, who was not involved in Summitt's care, told Live Science in a 2014 interview. Pneumonia is listed as the cause of death in as many as two-thirds of deaths of patients with dementia, according to the Alzheimer's Society. [Top 10 Leading Causes of Death]
Alzheimer's patients may also become bedridden, which can increase their risk of fatal blood clots, Gordon said.
Weight loss and other complications from Alzheimer's can also lead to a weakened immune system, the Alzheimer's Society says. This increases a person's susceptibility to potentially life-threatening infections, according to the National Institute on Aging.
Alzheimer's disease is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2013, nearly 85,000 people in the United States died from the disease, the CDC says. There is no cure for the illness.
In 2011, Summitt founded The Pat Summitt Foundation, with the mission of finding a cure for Alzheimer's disease.
Original article on Live Science.
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