While Alzheimer’s disease was first described in 1901, it was relatively unknown until the last quarter of the 20th century. Famous people with Alzheimer’s like Charlton Heston and Ronald Reagan have been instrumental in increasing public awareness about the disease and efforts to find a cure.
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan designated November as National Alzheimer’s Awareness Month. Reagan himself would later succumb to the disease, but Alzheimer’s Awareness Month continues.
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Other celebrities like Glen Campbell and Rita Hayworth have heightened understanding of the illness and reduce the stigma of Alzheimer’s patients by publicly announcing their own illnesses:
Malcolm Young, legendary guitarist and co-founder of rock band AC/DC, has been playing guitar since 1969. He’s considered by some to be one of the best rhythm guitarists in the world, producing hits like “You Shook Me All Night Long.” Unfortunately, Young recently announced his retirement from music, due to a dementia diagnosis. An article states that his departure from the band follows his “complete loss of short term memory,” and that he has trouble remembering people moments after meeting them.
Country singer and guitarist, Glen Campbell, announced in 2011 that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He’s completed his “Goodbye Tour,” which concluded 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.
Pat Summitt coached the Tennessee Lady Vols basketball team to an amazing 8 NCAA championships and retired with a record of 1,098-208. Summit recently announced that she had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. She retains the title of Head Coach Emeritus, and is currently involved as an advocate for people with the disease.
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 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.
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 the disease, can be found here.
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.
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. Heston left a long legacy of entertainment contributions and political activism.
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.
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 32nd Annual Rita Hayworth Gala.
Sugar Ray Robinson, recognized as one of the best boxers ever, died from Alzheimer’s 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 his head injuries contributed to Alzheimer’s disease.
During the 1970s, one of America’s most renowned classical composers, Aaron Copeland, found that his powers were failing him because of memory loss. By the 1980s he was unable to compose, and he passed away in 1990 shortly after his 90th birthday.
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.
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.
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.
James Stewart was recognized for his military career and for his time as an actor, where he was best known for his roles in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” He remained active until his death in 1997, being slowed by Alzheimer’s and another illness, which lead to his death.
Eddie Albert is best known for his roles in “Roman Holiday” and the “Heartbreak Kid,” as well as his time spent playing Oliver Wendell Douglas in the 1960s television comedy “Green Acres.” He began suffering from Alzheimer’s when in his 90s, and was cared for by his son until his death.
Evelyn Keyes is well known for her role as Suellen O’Hara in the classic film, “Gone with the Wind,” and for her role in “The Seven Year Itch.” She retired from acting but continued living life to the fullest, and wrote a memoir of her experiences before being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in her 80s and passing away in her 90s.
Best known for his lifetime of contributions to The New Yorker and for authoring “Stuart Little” and “Charlotte’s Web,” E.B. White was an accomplished writer and editor. He began suffering from Alzheimer’s in the 80s and eventually succumbed to the disease in 1985.
Rosa Parks is known as “the Mother of the Freedom Movement,” after being arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus and beginning the civil rights movement. She wrote an autobiography and continued to live a quiet life before being diagnosed with and later passing from, Alzheimer’s.
Recognized for his military career and known for acting as “Scotty” in “Star Trek,” James Doohan had an incredible acting career before announcing his Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease diagnosis and dying in 2005.
Known and adored by many as an actor and comedian, Williams rose to fame as Mork in the sitcom “Mork & Mindy.” He won the Academy award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as Dr. Sean Maguire in” Good Will Hunting,” and was also the recipient of two Emmy Awards, six Golden Globe Awards, two Screen Actor Guild Awards and four Grammy Awards for the myriad of impressive work he accomplished. He was inducted as a Disney Legend for his role as Genie in “Aladdin,” and was admired by the American public for his talents as both comedian and actor. Williams began to suffer from Lewy body dementia which was believed to be a”critical factor” that led to his suicide in 2014.
Kasem’s voice was recognized by Americans everywhere with his American Top 40 countdown — a franchise he co-founded — that greeted the airwaves of radios across the U.S. from 1970 to 2009. He was also the voice of “Shaggy” in “Scooby-Doo” from 1969-1997, and again from 2002-2009. Casey also provided the voice of many commercials and children character cartoon voices, from Sesame Street to Transformers. Kasem was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia in 2007, which he suffered from until his death in 2014.
Did any of these celebrities help shape your awareness of Alzheimer’s disease? Do you have your own story to share? Tell us in the comments below.