Sidney Poitier: Heart Failure, Dementia and Prostate Cancer

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Sidney Poitier was the first African-American to win an Academy Award for Best Actor, and his portrayal of real heroes helped to open the door for Black actors in the film industry. He received two Golden Globe Awards, a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album, the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award, and the BAFTA Fellowship for outstanding lifetime achievement in film. He starred in many top movies including The Defiant Ones, To Sir, With Love, In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and A Raisin in the Sun.  He was a prominent member of the Hollywood contingent that took part in the 1963 March on Washington.  He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1974 and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009, among many other awards.

On January 6, 2022, he died at age 94 from a combination of heart failure, Alzheimer’s dementia and prostate cancer, which are all associated with the same lifestyle risk factors.

Early Life and Acting Career
Poitier was the youngest of seven children of Bahamian farmers and was born three months prematurely while his parents were in Miami selling tomatoes, so he automatically was a U.S. citizen. The family lived in the Bahamas in the most primitive circumstances and the children’s clothes were made from flour sacks. When Poitier was ten, Florida banned importation of Bahamian tomatoes, so the family moved to the city of Nassau. There for the first time Poitier lived in a house with electricity, plumbing, and refrigeration, saw automobiles, tasted ice cream and was able to see himself in a mirror. At age 12, he quit school to be a water boy for laborers. He also was getting into a lot of trouble, so when he was 15, his parents sent him to Miami to live with a married brother. At age 16, he was so bothered by Miami’s racism that he went to New York City with only three dollars in his pocket and worked as a dishwasher, ditch digger, waterfront laborer and delivery man in the garment district. He was shot in his leg during a race riot in Harlem.

Poitier wanted to become an actor, but he could barely read or write so he could not perform well at auditions. Where he worked as a dishwasher, there was an older Jewish waiter who felt sorry for him and helped him with his reading by having him read newspapers out loud every night. That same year, he lied about his age and enlisted in the U.S. Army where he worked in a VA hospital, but he was miserable and a sympathetic doctor helped him to obtain a discharge. He went back to work as a dishwasher and spent most of his available free time trying to break into the theater, but failed because he couldn’t sing. He was accepted in a theater’s acting school on the condition that he also work as a janitor and receive no salary. His first break came in 1946 when another actor at the theater, Harry Belafonte, did not show up for a rehearsal attended by a Broadway producer. He replaced Belafonte and was rewarded with a part in an all-Black production of  Lysistrata.

He persisted and won a few roles on the New York Theater stage. In 1950, at age 23, he participated in his first credited movie and the rest is history. Over his long career, Poitier starred in or appeared in more than 50 films. In 1959, at age 32, he starred in the Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun, about the difficulty of being black in America, and a New York Times theater critic later wrote that his performance had “changed American theater forever.”

Poitier also directed nine films including Buck and the Preacher, Stir Crazy, Fast Forward and Ghost Dad. From 1995 to 2003 he was on the board of directors of The Walt Disney Company, and in 1997 (at age 70), he became ambassador from the Bahamas to Japan.

Relationship Between Heart Failure, Prostate Cancer and Dementia
I have not seen Sidney Portier’s medical records, and my information on his health is drawn from news reports. In his younger days, he ate a pro-inflammatory diet full of mammal meat, processed meats, sugar-added foods and fried foods, and drank alcohol. He was never really overweight. In 1993 at age 66, he developed prostate cancer and appeared to be cured by surgery. Poitier gave up alcohol, red meat and sugar, and ate large amounts of vegetables with every meal. He must have had excellent doctors, because medical literature shows that men with prostate cancer who adopt an anti-inflammatory lifestyle outlive those who continue their pro-inflammatory lifestyles.

The hottest subject in medical research today is an overactive immune system called inflammation. Your immune system is good for you; it produces chemicals called cytokines and cells called lymphocytes that search out and kill germs that try to invade your body. However, if your immunity stays active all the time, these same cytokines and lymphocytes can attack you to break off plaques to cause heart attacks and strokes, damage your DNA to block apoptosis and cause certain cancers, and damage brain cells to cause dementia. An anti-inflammatory lifestyle helps to dampen down an overactive immune system.

Dementia and Inactivity
Poitier suffered memory problems and was diagnosed with dementia. At age 91, he had a fall which left him in a wheelchair with head bandages. He also suffered from poor circulation in his legs and severe back problems, so he was far less active than he had ever been before. This prolonged inactivity contributed to making his heart so weak that it could not generate enough force to pump enough oxygen to his brain. At age 94, he stopped breathing and died of heart failure.

When you become inactive, you lose your skeletal muscles at an alarming rate, and losing skeletal muscle causes loss of heart muscle. When you contract your skeletal muscles, they squeeze the veins near them to pump extra blood back to your heart. The extra blood flowing back to your heart fills up your heart, which stretches your heart muscle, causing the heart muscle to contract with greater force and pump more blood back through your body. This partially explains why your heart beats faster and harder to pump more blood when you exercise. The harder your heart muscle has to contract regularly in an exercise program, the greater the gain in heart muscle strength. See Your Muscles Make Your Heart Stronger

Shared Risk Factors for Prostate Cancer, Dementia and Heart Failure
Virtually every man will get prostate cancer if he lives long enough, and usually they die from something else rather than from the cancer — most often a heart attack or heart failure.  Poitier lived for 28 more years after his initial diagnosis of prostate cancer.  In one large study, more than half of prostate cancer patients suffered from uncontrolled risk factors for heart attacks (JAMA Netw Open, Feb 24, 2021;4(2):e210070). Common laboratory indicators of both heart attack and prostate cancer risk include:
• blood pressure higher than 140/90 mm Hg,
• LDL cholesterol higher than130 mg/dL,
• hemoglobin A1c (an indicator of diabetes) over 5.7
Risk factors for heart attacks in midlife such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and smoking cigarettes are also risk factors for dementia (JAMA Neurology, August 7, 2017; Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat, 2019;15:167–175).
Other risk factors for both dementia and heart attacks include:
• alcohol use
• high blood homocysteine
• excess fat in the liver
• lack of exercise
• unhealthful diet

Anti-Inflammatory Lifestyle Rules
The anti-inflammatory lifestyle rules to dampen down an overactive immune system include:
• Eat a diet that is high in anti-inflammatory foods and low in pro-inflammatory foods
• Get enough vitamin D
• Avoid tobacco
• Restrict or avoid alcohol
• Avoid high blood sugar levels
• Avoid being overweight
• Try to exercise every day
See Prostate Cancer and Heart Attacks Share Lifestyle Factors

Most of the risk factors for prostate cancer are also risk factors for heart attacks and dementia. Every man should try to reduce his risk for these conditions by decreasing his chances for inflammation with the anti-inflammatory lifestyle rules listed above.

Sidney Poitier
February 20, 1927 – January 6, 2022