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With next month designated National Alzheimer’s Disease and Awareness Month in the US, Julian Upton looks at the film star whose plight pushed the long-misunderstood disorder into the spotlight.
In When Illness Goes Public, Barron H. Lerner writes that in 1994, when former President Ronald Reagan announced he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, most Americans were familiar with the condition. But back when Reagan first signed legislation proclaiming a National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Week in 1982, the public “had no clue” about it.
If it took Reagan’s support to push Alzheimer’s fully into the mainstream, it was the plight of Rita Hayworth, Reagan’s Hollywood pal, that edged it into the spotlight in the first place.
Hollywood history is littered with spectacular falls from grace, but Hayworth’s decline was particularly tragic, not just because she developed Alzheimer’s at such a young age, but that the symptoms went undiagnosed, or attributed solely to alcoholism, for years and possibly decades.
Hayworth’s second husband, Orson Welles, said that her volatility during their marriage in the mid-1940s “imitated alcoholism” but stemmed from something else. Indeed, the emotional fallout from her troubled personal life-tempestuous marriages, domestic abuse-would have been hard to distinguish from the early symptoms of a neurological disorder.
At this time, what little information there was about Alzheimer’s disease languished in dusty copies of Emil Kraepelin’s 1910 Handbook of Psychiatry. Kraepelin named the disease after German physician Alois Alzheimer, who in 1901 found plaques in the brain of a deceased 51-year-old woman in whom he had previously observed dementia-like symptoms. It would take until the 1970s and the development of electron microscopy for researchers to see these plaques in the brains of elderly patients thought to be living with senile dementia. But this was not widely perceived as a breakthrough. As Lerner points out, when early Alzheimer’s advocate Robert Katzman presented new research on the disease at a 1973 meeting, “the only newspaper to cover it was the National Enquirer.”
By then, Hayworth, still only in her early fifties, was experiencing a marked decline. Making her last film in 1971, she had to shoot her scenes line by line because she couldn’t memorize the dialogue. She had to withdraw from a Broadway play for the same reason. She could be dangerously unpredictable in polite company. In 1976 she became violent on a flight to London. As she was led from the plane at Heathrow, photographers were on hand to capture her distress for the world to see; news reports lamented her descent into alcoholism. Her doctors agreed.
Shortly afterward, Princess Yasmin Aga Khan, Hayworth’s daughter from her marriage to Prince Aly Khan, took responsibility for Hayworth’s welfare. Yasmin met psychiatrist Ronald Fieve, who would correctly diagnose her mother’s condition in 1980. When the news broke, it drew attention to the consensus around Alzheimer’s that had been forming in medical circles since Katzman’s research. As Lerner observes, it also put a face to a “faceless disease.”
Hayworth was too ill to see Reagan instigate Alzheimer’s Awareness Week in 1982. But Yasmin was there; she’d become an advocate and fundraiser for the then-barely-known Alzheimer’s Association. Thirty years on from Hayworth’s death in 1987, the Association has grown from a small “mom-and-pop” outfit to the largest non-profit funder of Alzheimer’s research.
Rita Hayworth’s life was the classic Hollywood rise and fall. But it also sparked hope in helping to redeem research into a disease that is now a health priority.
Julian Upton is Pharm Exec’s European & Online Editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.