While Alzheimer’s disease was first described in 1901, it was a relatively unknown illness until the last quarter of the 20th century. Famous people with Alzheimer’s like Ronald Reagan and Charlton Heston have been instrumental in increasing public awareness about the illness and efforts to find a cure.
In 1983 President Ronald Reagan designated November as National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month. Reagan himself would later succumb to the disease, but Alzheimer’s Awareness Month continues. On November 1, President Obama announced the 29th annual Alzheimer’s Month.
Famous Americans such as Glen Campbell, Ronald Reagan and Rita Hayworth have heightened understanding of the illness and reduce the stigma of Alzheimer’s patients by publicly announcing their own illnesses.
Notable Americans Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s
1. Glenn Campbell (1936 – ): Country singer and guitarist, Glen Campbell, announced in 2011 that he had been recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. He’s nearing the end of his “Goodbye Tour”, which will conclude on November 30th in Napa, California. Campbell has over 50 years in the music business and on television, and landed a historical win of four Grammy’s in 1967.
2. Pat Summit (1952 – ): Pat Summit coached the Tennessee Lady Vols basketball team an amazing 8 NCAA championships and retired with a record of 1,098-208. Last year, Summit announced that she had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. She retains the title of Head Coach Emeritus, and is currently involved as an advocate for people with Alzheimer’s disease.
3. Perry Como (1912 – 2001): Perry Como was a popular singer and television personality during the 1950s and 1960s and continued to perform periodically during his later years, especially around Christmas. Como suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for two years before passing away in 2001. Como spent more than 50 years in the entertainment business and was widely respected, personally and professionally.
4. Charles Bronson (1921 – 2003): Charles Bronson, star of Death Wish and numerous other action films, spent the last years of his life debilitated from Alzheimer’s. An article about Bronson’s late years, that discusses his struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, can be found here.
5. Ronald Reagan (1911-2004): Six years after the end of his presidency, Ronald Reagan announced to the American public that he was “one of the millions of Americans who will be afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease.” He said that his public disclosure was intended to raise public awareness about the disease.
6. Charlton Heston (1923-2008): Charlton Heston’s most famous role was as Moses in The Ten Commandments. Like his personal friend, Ronald Reagan, Heston also announced publicly that he had Alzheimer’s disease. Heston left a long legacy of entertainment contributions and political activism.
7. Norman Rockwell (1894-1978): Rockwell, one of the most famous American painters, became well known for his illustrations on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. Rockwell succumbed to Alzheimer’s after a long and illustrious career. Interestingly, Rockwell’s paintings are now used sometimes in dementia therapy because of the memories and nostalgia they elicit.
8. Rita Hayworth (1918-1987): Hayworth was an American film star who rose to prominence in the 1940s. Despite fairly obvious signs of the illness, Rita Hayworth was not correctly diagnosed for several years. After eventually learning the cause of her memory loss, Hayworth became the “face of Alzheimer’s disease” during the 1980s. This year, the Alzheimer’s Association held its 25th Annual Rita Hayworth Gala.
9. Sugar Ray Robinson (1921-1989): Sugar Ray Robinson, recognized as one of the best boxers ever, died from Alzheimer’s disease at just 67 years of age. Robinson held the welterweight and middleweight title belts, and finished with a final record of 173 wins, 19 losses, and 2 draws. It’s not currently known whether head injuries can contribute to Alzheimer’s disease.
10. Aaron Copeland (1900 – 1990): During the 1970’s one of America’s most renowned classical composers, Aaron Copeland, found that his powers were failing him because of memory loss. By the 1980’s he was unable to compose, and he passed away in 1990 shortly after his 90th birthday.
11. Burgess Meredith (1907-1997): Burgess Meredith may have been most famous for his role as the Penguin in the Batman TV series, although he appeared in numerous films and shows. His career would have been even greater had he it not been for McCarthyism and the Red Scare; he spent 7 years on a Hollywood blacklist because of his left leaning political views. Meredith passed on due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease.
12. Estelle Getty (1923 – 1998): Estelle Getty is best known for her role as Sophia in the Golden Girls. She passed away from complications of Lewy body dementia, which is actually different than Alzheimer’s but also causes memory loss and other Alzheimer’s-like symptoms.
13. Peter Falk (1927 – 2011): Peter Falk began his career on stage, but reached national prominence as a star of the TV series Columbo. He also played the narrator and grandfather in the popular film Princess Bride. Towards the end of his life his physician reported that he could no longer even remember the character of Columbo. Alzheimer’s disease was one of the underlying causes for his death.
We honor the more than 5 million Americans with Alzheimer’s, as well their family and caretakers. Did any of these celebrities help shape your awareness of Alzheimer’s disease? Do you have your own story to share? We welcome your comments below.