We lost one of the greatest comics and actors of our time when Robin Williams took his own life at his home in California on August 11, 2014. He was 63. How could a person who appeared to have everything, from being born wealthy and secure to being one of the world’s most loved and respected actors, commit suicide? At the time of his death, there was a lot of speculation about his recent depression and anxiety. His wife had not released the news that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and when his brain was examined, he was found to have suffered from Lewy Body Dementia (LBD), which has no known cause and no effective treatment. A drug approved by the FDA in June 2021 to slow the progression of dementia, aducanumab (brand name Aduhelm), may now be used when LBD is suspected, but the data on possible benefits from this drug is very weak.
• Over his 30-year career, Williams was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor three times, received the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Good Will Hunting, received two Emmy Awards, four Golden Globe Awards, two Screen Actors Guild Awards and five Grammy Awards.
• He had many passionate interests. He owned more than 50 bicycles and rode well enough to work out with professional riders. He traveled on the US Postal and Discovery Channel Pro Cycling buses during the Tour de France. He was a great fan of professional rugby and was friends with famous rugby players such as Jonah Lomu. He loved jazz and numbered many famous jazz musicians among his personal friends. He supported eco-friendly vehicles and drove a Toyota Prius when he could have afforded the most expensive automobiles. He worked tirelessly to help others; with his second wife, Marsha, he founded the Windfall Foundation to raise money for many different charities: the Comic Relief fundraising effort, Children’s Promise, the 2010 Canterbury earthquake project to rebuild the New Zealand city, and the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. He also performed with the USO for U.S. troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Williams was born on July 21st, 1951 into a wealthy family. His father was a senior executive at Lincoln-Mercury Motors and his mother was a former model from New Orleans. During his childhood, he was bullied by other children for being fat. He rarely spoke to other children and would play alone in his family’s estate with his many toys. In high school, he overcame his isolation by joining the wrestling and track teams, and learned that by making other children laugh, they would become his friends.
After high school, he was accepted at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City where he was told that he was better as a comedian than a serious actor. He developed a stand up comedy act that he performed at various night clubs. This led to the role of “Mork” on the sitcom Happy Days and then to the spin-off show, Mork & Mindy. From there, he became one of Hollywood’s best-loved actors.
Marriages and Relationships
He was married three times. At age 27, he married Valerie Velardi. They met in 1976 in a San Francisco restaurant where he was working as a bartender and she as a waitress while taking a graduate degree at Mills College. In 1983 they had a son, Zachary Pym Williams. He had an affair with a cocktail waitress who sued him in 1986 for not telling her that he was infected with the herpes simplex virus. The case was settled out of court. Valerie divorced him after she found out that he was having an affair with their son’s nanny.
At age 39, he married Marsha Garces. She went from being the nanny to wife, secretary and personal assistant. They had two children: Zelda Rae Williams, born in 1989 and Cody Alan Williams, born in 1991. She divorced him in 2008.
In 2011, at age 60, he married Susan Schneider, a graphic designer. After his death, she said, “I lost my husband and my best friend, while the world lost one of its most beloved artists and beautiful human beings. I am utterly heartbroken.”
Alcohol and Drugs
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Williams was addicted to cocaine. He had spent hours with John Belushi before Belushi overdosed on heroin and cocaine. In 1982 he quit cocaine and alcohol cold turkey when his first wife was pregnant with their son Zachary. In 2003, after twenty dry years, he started drinking alcohol again. In July 2014, he was severely depressed and was admitted to the Hazelden Addiction Treatment Center in Lindstrom, Minnesota.
Diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease
In the year before his death, Williams had been told that he was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease. When people start to shake and tremble when they try to move, they usually have either benign tremors, which are not necessarily progressive and usually can be controlled with drugs, or Parkinson’s disease, a progressive, incurable disease that usually leads to depending on others for a person’s essential existence. Parkinson’s disease is often linked to depression.
Posthumous Diagnosis of Lewy Body Dementia
Upon examination of his brain after death, Williams was found to have Lewy Body Dementia (LBD), in which abnormal deposits of a protein called alpha-synuclein accumulate in areas of the brain that control behavior, memory and movement. His brilliant mind ended up leaving him with horrible forgetfulness, paranoia and anxiety, and he did not want to live that way.
LBD is the second most common type of dementia (after Alzheimer’s disease), and affects more than 1.4 million North Americans. Since LBD cannot be definitely identified until the brain can be examined, people with LBD are often diagnosed as having Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease, which can have similar symptoms. LBD can damage the entire brain so that every known brain function can be harmed. At this time there is no effective treatment for LBD and the cause is not known.
The new drug for dementia that was approved by the FDA in June 2021, aducanumab (brand name Aduhelm), may slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease and may also be tried when LBD is suspected. However, the data to show that this drug is beneficial is extremely weak and it is ridiculously expensive. Three members of the FDA’s advisory board resigned after it was approved.
Efforts to Prevent or Delay Dementia
The various forms of dementia all progress from memory loss to inability to recognize loved ones or communicate with other people. New treatments or drugs such as Aduhelm may be shown to help in the future, but for now, accumulating evidence suggests that the best ways we have to prevent or slow the progression of dementia are anti-inflammatory lifestyle habits:
• Exercise regularly
• Engage in lots of activities that require thinking, memory and calculation
• Eat a plant-based, Mediterranean-style diet (I recommend that you restrict meat from mammals, processed meats, sugar-added foods and drinks, and fried foods)
• Avoid alcohol, tobacco and recreational drugs
• Avoid being overweight
• Control high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high blood sugar and other heart attack risk factors
July 21, 1951 – August 11, 2014