No one is immune from Alzheimer's disease. Neither power, money, fame nor beauty can protect any of us, as the following list testifies. It is a list of famous people who have or had Alzheimer's. I have listed them in alphabetical order, since there is no rhyme or reason linking them in any other way.
Dana Andrews, actor
George Balanchine, dancer and choreographer
Rudolph Bing, opera impresario
Charles Bronson, actor and film director
Abe Burrows, author
Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister
Imogene Coca, comedienne
Perry Como, singer and entertainer
Aaron Copeland, composer
Willem DeKooning, artist
Ralph Waldo Emerson, essayist and philosopher
Michael Farraday, 19th century British physicist, the father of modern physics
Arlene Francis, actress
Geraldine Fitzgerald, actress
Barry Goldwater, Senator from Arizona
Rita Hayworth, actress
Charlton Heston, actor and political activist
W. Somerset Maugham, author
Vincent Minnelli, director
Iris Murdoch, author
Edmund O'Brien, actor
Frederick Law Olmsted, landscape architect (Central Park)
Rosa Parks, civil rights activist
Pauline Phillips, Dear Abby
Otto Preminger, director
William Proxmire, Senator from Wisconsin
Maurice Ravel, composer (Bolero)
Ronald Reagon, 40th President of USA
Norman Rockwell, artist
Sugar Ray Robinson, boxer
Robert Sargent Shriver, Director of the Peace Corps
Irving Shulman, screen writer (West Side Story)
Jonathon Swift, 19th century British author (Gulliver's Travels)
Cyrus Vance, Secretary of State under President Carter
E. B. White, author (Charlotte's Web)
Harold Wilson, British Prime Minister
Public awareness of Alzheimer's disease
This list is by no means exhaustive. It could have been twice as long. Alzheimer's was first diagnosed in 1906. But it was believed to be a very rare disease, afflicting people in their thirties, forties, and fifties with the symptoms of dementia commonly seen in elderly people who had the senile dementia of old age. Senility was thought to be a natural part of aging, like white hair and wrinkles. In 1953 two scientists proved that Alzheimer's and senility are one and the same disease. But it wasn't until the early 1970s that the medical community accepted the idea of senile dementia as a disease. And it wasn't until the late 1970s that the public began to hear about Alzheimer's for the first time.
Rita Hayworth was diagnosed in 1980. That same year, syndicated columnist Abigail Van Buren (Pauline Phillips) printed a letter about Alzheimer's in her "Dear Abby" column. It caused a flood of 25,000 letters in response. In 1982, President Reagon conferred the first of his two giant spotlights on the disease by proclaiming November, "National Alzheimer's Month." The second spotlight was his announcement on November 5, 1994, at the age of 83 that he was suffering from the disease himself: "I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life." That journey ended on June 5, 2004, at the age of 93.
The U. S. Centers for Disease Control published the National Vital Statistics Report on September 16, 2002. This report showed a graph of the death rates for the 15 leading causes of death in the United States from 1958 to 2000. Unlike the 14 other causes of death shown, Alzheimer's isn't even plotted before 1979. In 1979, the Alzheimer's death rate was 0.2 per 100,000 people. By 2000 it was 18.0 per 100,000, making it the eighth leading cause of death. Alzheimer's certainly existed before 1979; it was just not recognized as a disease in the elderly.
It is a very prevalent disease and is becoming more so as the baby boomers come of Alzheimer's age. The prevalence rates for Alzheimer's double approximately every 5 years after the age of 65. 2-3% of persons aged 65 have the disease, while 25-50% of persons aged 85 have symptoms of Alzheimer's, depending on the study cited. Some 4.5 million Americans now have Alzheimer's, according to the Alzheimer's Association. If the disease continues at the current rate, as many as 16 million could have Alzheimer's by 2050.
The fame of people on the above list has nothing to do with their having had Alzheimer's. But next week's article will be about a person whose fame has everything to do with having had Alzheimer's. It will be about Frau Auguste D., the first Alzheimer's patient.
Mary Lou Williams, M. Ed., is a lecturer and writer in the field of nutrition. She welcomes inquiries. She can be reached at 267-6480.