Trail-blazing retired U.S. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor reveals she has dementia

WASHINGTON, Oct 23 (Reuters) - Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman to serve as a U.S. Supreme Court justice, announced on Tuesday that she has been diagnosed with dementia.

O'Connor, a centrist on the conservative-leaning court, was appointed by Republican former President Ronald Reagan in 1981 and retired in 2006.

"Some time ago, doctors diagnosed me with the beginning stages of dementia, probably Alzheimer's disease," O'Connor, 88, said in a letter issued by the court.

As a result of the diagnosis, O'Connor said she has withdrawn from public life.

"I will continue living in Phoenix, Arizona, surrounded by dear friends and family. While the final chapter of my life with dementia may be trying, nothing has diminished my gratitude and deep appreciation for the countless blessings in my life," O'Connor added.

Sandra Day O'Connor through the years
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Sandra Day O'Connor through the years
PHOENIX, AZ - JANUARY 16: Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States (Ret.) Sandra Day O'Connor poses before receiving the prestigious Anam Cara Award at the Irish Cultural Center on January 16, 2014 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Mike Moore/WireImage)
circa 1970: Supreme Court Judge Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman to achieve the office, appointed by President Ronald Reagan. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)
US jurist Sandra Day O'Connor is sworn in before the Senate Judiciary Committee at a confirmation hearing on her selection as a justice of the US Supreme Court. (Photo by Keystone/Consolidated News Pictures/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC -- SEPTEMBER 25: Newly appointed Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor stands in front of the US Supreme Court Building following her being sworn in, September 25, 1981, in Washington, DC. (Photo by David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images).
Portrait of Sandra Day O'Connor, Assoiciate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, Washington, DC, December 3, 1993. (Photo by Ron Sachs/CNP/Getty Images)
384802 07: (FILE PHOTO) This undated file photo shows Justice Sandra Day O''Connor of the Supreme Court of the United States in Washington, DC. (Photo by Liaison)
390456 01: Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O''Connor and her husband John O''Connor leave the receiving line at the annual Opera Ball June 8, 2001 at the Swedish Embassy in Washington, DC. (Photo by Karin Cooper/Getty Images)
Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor giving testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee Full committee hearing on 'Ensuring Judicial Independence Through Civics Education' on July 25, 2012 in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO/ Karen BLEIER (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/GettyImages)

O'Connor was the Supreme Court's first woman justice nearly two centuries after the Supreme Court was established in 1789 but her place in history went beyond breaking gender barriers.

Over time, she became the court's ideological center, casting key votes in cases on the most contentious issues of her era, including a ruling that helped preserve a woman's right to have an abortion and another upholding affirmative action - the use of racial preferences in student admissions - on college campuses.

When former President George W. Bush replaced her with conservative Justice Samuel Alito, the already conservative court moved further to the right.

"Justice O'Connor is of course a towering figure in the history of the United States and indeed the world," Chief Justice John Roberts said in a statement. "She broke down barriers for women in the legal profession to the betterment of that profession and the country as a whole."

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

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