While certainly no one can begrudge any celebrity his or her right to privacy, it’s nonetheless inspiring when one chooses to share a private health struggle with their fans in the hopes of encouraging anyone facing a similar challenge. When First Lady Betty Ford chose to go public with a breast cancer diagnosis and mastectomy back in the 1970s (when few women were so forthcoming) she went a long way in destigmatizing what had often been considered a shameful and painful treatment option. Similarly, when President Ronald Reagan announced to the world his Alzheimer’s diagnosis in 1994, speaking frankly about his prognosis, he cast light on a disease that had too often been often endured behind closed doors. “Perhaps,” he wrote, “(sharing this publicly) will encourage a clear understanding of the individuals and families who are affected by it.”
Many public figures over the years have chosen to share their dementia diagnosis with the public, while others have preferred to stay silent, having family members act as proxy messengers. Here are just a few celebrities whose lives have been affected by Alzheimer’s and other dementia-related illnesses:
- Perhaps no American painter captured scenes of national nostalgia better than Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), which makes his ultimate dementia diagnosis all the more ironic. In fact many of his scenes of American life are used in therapy with dementia patients to help stimulate memory and cognitive function. Rockwell suffered from dementia the last six years of his life before passing away from emphysema.
- Rock guitarist Malcolm Young of AC/DC showed signs of dementia for years before band mates knew what was wrong, says brother and lead singer Angus in a recent interview. “I noticed the signs for a number of years … but it was hard to figure out what it was. It was very hard to get a diagnosis – what he actually had. He’s not an old person.” Young was only 61 when doctors concluded he had dementia, which given his age is technically considered to be early onset.
- Robin Williams shocked the world by taking his own life in 2014, and yet his death revealed a devastating battle he’d been waging in secret for years against Lewy Body dementia, a degenerative and incurable disease with elements of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Williams’ widow went public after his death with an open letter detailing the trajectory of his symptoms, the slow and frustrating diagnosis process he endured, and the disease’s impact on their family. “Hopefully …this sharing of our experience will … turn Robin’s suffering into something meaningful,” she wrote. “It is my belief that when healing comes from Robin’s experience, he will not have battled and died in vain.”
- Country singer and songwriter Glen Campbell went public with his Alzheimer’s diagnosis in 2011, marking the announcement with what he termed his “Goodbye Tour” across the US. A documentary made about the tour entitled I’ll Be Me went on to be nominated for a Peabody award. While he was still able to communicate, Campbell worked to advocate for Alzheimer’s research and funding, including a trip to Capitol Hill in 2012. He now lives comfortably in a managed care facility near his wife and children.
Have other celebrities’ stories inspired you or a family member? Tell us in the comments!