Raquel Welch: Heart Failure and Dementia

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Raquel Welch was a Hollywood actress and television star whom Playboy called the “Most Desired Woman” of the 1970s, and ranked as Number Three on their “100 Sexiest Stars of the Twentieth Century” (after Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield). She won a Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture Actress in a Musical or Comedy in 1974 for her performance in The Three Musketeers, and was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in Television Films for her performance in the film Right to Die (1987).

On February 15, 2023, at age 82, she died from heart failure after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for several years. Both heart damage and dementia are associated with the same risk factors. She was a beautiful woman who never smoked or drank alcohol, exercised regularly and stayed very slim and fit. However, she appears to have become inactive in her last few years from her dementia, which often causes heart failure, and she developed abdominal obesity, which is a marker of diabetes. Over her lifetime she had four husbands and many other partners, which would increase her risk for chronic infections.  Infections can cause an overactive immune system called inflammation that damages both the heart and the brain.

Early Life and Acting Career
Jo-Raquel Tejada was born in Chicago in 1940 and moved with her family to La Jolla (near San Diego) at age two. At age 14, she won “Miss Photogenic” and “Miss Contour” beauty contests. While at La Jolla High School, she won titles of “Miss La Jolla,” “Miss San Diego” and “Fairest of the Fair.” After high school, she went to San Diego State College to study theater arts and was in many different theater productions. Meanwhile, she married her high school sweetheart and had two children, Damon and Tahnee. She tried to combine school work, marriage, and a job as weather reporter at KFMB television, but this was too much for her, so she gave up everything except her two children and moved with them to Dallas, Texas.  There she supported herself as a model at Neiman Marcus and a waitress at a bar.

In 1963 at age 23, she moved back to Los Angeles and met a Hollywood agent named Patrick Curtis who managed her career. She was so beautiful that she won roles in several movies and television dramas. A 1966 poster photo from her role in One Million Years B.C. made her into a sex symbol known all over the world. In 1970, at age 30, she starred in her own successful television special, “Raquel,” and continued to star in movies, Broadway shows, night clubs, and television.

A Remote Connection
I often tell you about famous people I have known or met, but in this instance, Diana is the one with the connection, although it is very slim. Raquel’s high school, La Jolla High School, is where Diana, her brother Rob and her sister-in-law Marian all went to school. With about 600 students in grades 7-12, the school was small enough that everyone knew their classmates. Rob (class of 1957) was a year ahead of Raquel (class of 1958), while Diana and Marian were a year behind — class of 1959. And yes, Raquel was THAT beautiful, was very popular, and was elected a class officer and a cheerleader. In her yearbook listing, she said that she planned to become an actress.

Marriages and Relationships
• At age 19, Raquel married her high school boyfriend, James Welch, and thus acquired what became her stage name. They had two children and divorced in 1964, when she was 24.
• At age 27, she married her agent and publicist, Patrick Curtis. They were divorced when she was 32.
• When she was 28, her husband chased an actor named Sancho Gracia with a gun, over an alleged affair.
• She dated football player Joe Namath, producer Robert Evans, and many “big names” including Steve McQueen, Warren Beatty and Freddy Prinze.
• Age 40, she married producer André Weinfeld, had a miscarriage at age 43, and divorced at age 50.
• Age 56, she dated a much younger man, former British boxing champion Gary Stretch.
• Age 59, she married Richie Palmer, owner of Mulberry Street Pizzeria, and divorced at age 63
• In her 70s, she dated American Idol producer Nigel Lythgoe.

Heart Disease and Dementia Have Similar Risk Factors
Welch’s death certificate stated that she died from heart failure and suffered from dementia. Her last listed films and television shows occurred in 2017, so it appears that she started to withdraw from a very active and very public career about six years before her death.

Dementia starts first with forgetting names and then places, and then progresses to forgetting faces. At this point a dementia patient usually withdraws from public life. We know from late photos that Welch gained weight in these last few years, after a lifetime of staying slim and fit. Although I have no source of information that she may have become diabetic, pictures taken shortly before she died show significant abdominal fat, which is a marker and cause of diabetes that damages both the heart and the brain.

Diabetes doubles a person’s chances of developing dementia (Intern Med J, 2012; 42: 484– 491). Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes share many of the same metabolic abnormalities, so doctors now call Alzheimer’s disease “Type 3 diabetes” (World J Diabetes, Jun 15, 2021; 12(6): 745-766). The less you exercise as you age, the weaker your heart becomes and the more likely you are to become diabetic (Diabetes Care, 2002; 25:1612–1618).

The most common cause of death in dementia is heart failure ( J Am Geriatr Soc, 64, e137–e142), because people with advanced dementia often spend most of their time lying in bed, so your heart gets progressively weaker until it becomes too weak to pump enough oxygen to your brain. The next most common cause is pneumonia. Some of the infections associated with increased risk, but not proven to cause dementia, include oral herpes, spirochete bacteria such as Lyme disease and syphilis, Chlamydophila pneumoniae that causes pneumonia and bronchitis, and chronic gum disease.

Protecting Yourself From Dementia
A study that followed 2449 men and women over age 65 suggests that there is a lot that you can do to help protect yourself from dementia (BMJ Neurology, April 13, 2022;377:e068390). The healthful lifestyle factors tracked in this study included diet, physical activity, cognitive activity, not smoking, and avoiding or limiting alcohol (<15g/day for women, <30g/day for men). Higher lifestyle scores were associated with a longer life expectancy, and the higher-scoring participants lived a larger proportion of their remaining years without dementia.

Exercise: A review of hundreds of articles in the world’s scientific literature showed that exercising older people have far less loss of brain function with aging, less brain blood vessel damage, larger hippocampal brain size for better memory, less loss of brain tissue with aging, better spatial memory, better communication between brain nerves and improved ability to learn new facts (Mayo Clin Proc, 2011 Sep; 86(9): 876–884).
Anti-Inflammatory Diet: Researchers have not proven that dietary changes can help to prevent or treat dementia, but strong data associate a pro-inflammatory diet with increased risk for dementia (Neurology, Nov 10, 2021;10.1212). The authors divided 1059 non-demented people, average age 73, into three groups based on high, medium and low inflammatory diet scores. This study is especially important because it analyzed the entire diets and classified 45 different groups of foods into pro-inflammatory foods that raise blood markers of inflammation, and anti-inflammatory foods that lower these same blood markers. At the end of the three-year study period, 62 of the participants had become demented. Those with the worst inflammatory diet scores were 3.5 times more likely to become demented than those with the best scores.  Base your diet on the anti-inflammatory foods: vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole (unground) grains, beans, and seafood. Pro-inflammatory foods to limit or avoid include sweetened beverages and sugar-added foods, red meat (meat from mammals), processed meats and fried foods. If you are diabetic or trying to lose weight, limit foods made with flour and other refined carbohydrates.

Raquel Welch
September 5, 1940 – February 15, 2023