Dementia is common and affects over 55 million people worldwide. A multitude of famous people have been diagnosed with some type of dementia, which has led to increased awareness and even funding for research. These are some examples of popular actors who have been diagnosed with dementia and the different ways their diagnosis made an impact.
Rita Hayworth (1918-1987)
One famous actress who had dementia was Rita Hayworth. Hayworth became a popular actress in the 1940s and appeared in 61 movies over 37 years. In the 1960s, Hayworth began having trouble remembering her lines and continued to experience issues during the following years. Her doctors and fellow actors wrongly assumed it was due to alcohol consumption. Many physicians did not diagnose Alzheimer’s during this time period as it had largely been forgotten since its discovery in 1906.
It was not until 1979 that a psychiatrist finally diagnosed Hayworth with the disease. The diagnosis was publicly announced two years later. Since Hayworth was one of the first major stars who was known to have Alzheimer’s, her diagnosis brought a significant amount of awareness to it. This helped other patients get diagnosed and it led to increased funding for Alzheimer’s research. In addition, there have been annual Rita Hayworth Galas which have raised millions of dollars for the Alzheimer’s Association over the years.
Hayworth died in 1987 at age 68 from Alzheimer’s disease. Due to her diagnosis and it being made public, further attention was brought to this condition, funding increased, more patients were able to get diagnosed, and the disease became less stigmatized in society overall.
Robin Williams (1951-2014)
Another famous actor who had dementia was Robin Williams. Robin Williams was known for his roles in numerous popular movies, such as Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting. He established his career in both acting and stand up comedy, and was known for his improvisation skills and character voices he created. During the last year of his life, Williams began experiencing symptoms such as forgetfulness, paranoia, confusion, and difficulty with movement. He had seen multiple medical professionals, but it was not until after his death that it was discovered he had Lewy body dementia.
Lewy body dementia is the second most common neurodegenerative dementia after Alzheimer’s. Although it affects an estimated 1.4 million people in the United States, it is not as widely recognized as Alzheimer’s. Lewy body dementia is diagnosed when cognitive decline is an early symptom, or when motor symptoms and cognitive decline develop together. This type of dementia can be difficult to diagnose because of the range of early symptoms that are not all related to brain function. Movement issues, cognitive symptoms, sleep problems, dysautonomia, and mood and behavior changes may occur with Lewy body dementia.
Robin Williams died by suicide at age 63 in 2014. When his diagnosis of Lewy body dementia was made public, it brought further awareness to this type of dementia that is not as well known as Alzheimer’s. More attention was brought to mental health issues as well. Depression and anxiety can be symptoms of Lewy body dementia and those who have neurological conditions are at a higher risk for suicide. Health care teams have found that the most effective treatment for Lewy body dementia involves medication, physical and mental exercises, and incorporating a mental health professional as part of a care team.
Williams’ wife, Susan Schneider Williams, became an advocate for research, education, and awareness for Lewy body dementia after his death. She began educating others through speeches, articles, and interviews. She also joined the board of directors for the American Brain Foundation, which helped launch a campaign to fund research for diagnosing and treating Lewy body dementia. In 2021, she contributed to a documentary called Robin’s Wish, which portrayed Williams’ experience with the disease. Further awareness has been brought to Lewy body dementia because of Robin Williams’ diagnosis.
Bruce Willis is another famous actor who was recently diagnosed with dementia. Willis has starred in multiple well-known movies, including Die Hard and The Sixth Sense. In 2022, Willis’ family announced that he would retire from acting because of a diagnosis of aphasia. Aphasia is a neurological disorder caused by damage to an area of the brain that controls language expression and comprehension. Earlier this year, his family shared that Willis’ condition had progressed and he had been diagnosed with dementia. Specifically, Willis had been diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia.
Frontotemporal dementia is an umbrella term for a group of disorders that affect the brain’s frontal and temporal lobes. It is the cause of about 10% to 20% of dementia cases. These regions of the brain are generally associated with behavior, language, and personality. Symptoms of frontotemporal dementia can include behavioral changes and speech and language problems. Additionally, this type of dementia tends to develop at a younger age compared to Alzheimer’s disease and often starts between the ages of 40 and 65.
Bruce Willis’ family hopes that more awareness can be brought to frontotemporal dementia since he has been diagnosed with it. In a statement, they wrote: “We know in our hearts that – if he could today – he would want to respond by bringing global attention and connectedness with those who are also dealing with this debilitating disease and how it impacts so many individuals and their families.” Bruce Willis is a well-known actor and more awareness has been brought to this type of dementia after his diagnosis.
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