What Was Really Wrong with Robin Williams?
I never heard of the disease that drove Robin Williams to commit suicide. Can you tell me anything about it and how it differs from Alzheimer’s disease?
Andrew Weil, M.D. | December 18, 2015
According to results of an autopsy disclosed in November (2015), actor Robin Williams was suffering from Lewy body dementia, a disease that has features in common with both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. (It was named for the scientist who discovered the abnormal protein deposits that disrupt normal brain functioning. Lewy body disease is the second most common form of progressive dementia.) Williams, 63, couldn’t have known the diagnosis when he took his own life in August 2014. Shortly after her husband’s death, Williams’ widow, Susan, issued a statement disclosing that he had been suffering from depression and anxiety and had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
Lewy body disease causes progressive cognitive decline, fluctuations in alertness and attention, visual hallucinations (often of children, animals or miniature people), sleeping problems, depression and symptoms of involuntary body movements similar to those of Parkinson’s disease.
The cause is the build-up in the brain of bits of protein called Lewy bodies. Because the symptoms are so similar to those of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases and because Lewy bodies are also found in the brains of people with both those disorders, the disease isn’t always easy to diagnose. While it isn’t widely known, it is not uncommon, affecting an estimated 1.3 million Americans. In most cases, patients have no family history of the disease, although a few familial cases have been reported, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
Perhaps the one feature that distinguishes Lewy body dementia from Alzheimer’s disease is that patients are less likely to have problems with short-term memory. There is no cure, and the only treatments available are drugs used to treat Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. These medications can slow progression of the symptoms but cannot alter the underlying problem. Survival after diagnosis is usually about eight years.
In an ABC News interview, Susan Williams said that her husband had had an “endless parade of symptoms,” including depression, anxiety and paranoia since the fall of 2013 “and not all of them would raise their head at once.” The week of his death he was planning to enter a facility for neurocognitive testing, Mrs. Williams disclosed.
According to the coroner’s report, Williams had been acting strangely before his death. “If Robin was lucky, he would’ve had maybe three years left. And they would’ve been hard years,” Mrs. Williams said in the ABC interview.
Andrew Weil, M.D.
Dave Itzkoff and Benedict Carey, “Robin Williams Widow Points to Dementia as a Suicide Cause,” The New York Times, November 4, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/04/health/robin-williams-lewy-body-dementia.html?ref=health&_r=1