Death of Comedian Robin Williams and the Tragic Effect of Dementia

Maui, Hawaii (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)
Maui, Hawaii (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)

Dementia is a general term for loss of memory and other mental abilities severe enough to interfere with daily life. It is caused by physical changes in the brain. There are at least 10 different types of dementia.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia and accounts for an estimated 60 to 80 percent of cases.

Lewy body dementia is a progressive disease and is the second most common type of progressive dementia. It affects 1.4 million Americans.

Actor comedian Robin Williams, a man who entertained and made millions of people laugh, committed suicide on August 11, 2014. Questions were raised on the state of his mind and health at the time of his tragic death. At autopsy, the brain of Williams showed signs of diffuse Lewy body disease.

The Lewy Body Dementia Association website has a clarifying statement on the autopsy report on Williams. It goes on to explain the effect of Lewy body dementia.

Before his death, Williams had a clinical diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease and received treatment for his symptoms. He also suffered from depression, anxiety and paranoia, which may occur in either Parkinson’s disease or dementia with Lewy bodies.

In the early 1900s, while researching Parkinson’s disease, the German-born American neurologist, Friederich H. Lewy, discovered abnormal protein deposits that disrupt the brain’s normal functions. Lewy body dementia exists either in pure form, or in conjunction with other brain changes, including those typically seen in Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

Lewy body dementia is a progressive disease. It causes a decline in mental functions. There may be visual hallucinations, and changes in alertness and attention. They may have Parkinson’s disease-like symptoms such as rigid muscles, slow movement and tremors.

In early Parkinson’s disease, Lewy bodies are generally limited in distribution, but in dementia with Lewy bodies, the Lewy bodies are spread widely throughout the brain, as was the case with Williams.

To make a clinical diagnosis of dementia with Lewy bodies, a person must have significant problems with thinking and memory that interfere with everyday life. There was no mention in the media or in the autopsy report that Williams exhibited these symptoms. But it is not uncommon for early signs of dementia to go unnoticed.

Making diagnoses of Lewy body dementia is not easy because it is a complex disease that can present with a range of physical, cognitive, and behavioural symptoms. Symptoms that can closely resemble other more commonly known diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. That is why it is widely undiagnosed. It can dramatically affect not only the person diagnosed but also the primary caregiver – usually the family.

Early and accurate diagnosis of Lewy body dementia, while not always easy, is of critical importance for better management. If they are misdiagnosed to have Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease then they may react to medications differently. They need multidisciplinary treatment from different specialists.

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