Did Robin Williams Have Lewy Body Dementia?

The Effects of Lewy Body Dementia


Beloved comedian and actor Robin Williams died on August 1, 2014 of an apparent suicide. In October, an autopsy report released to the media indicates that Robin Williams may have been suffering from Lewy Body Dementia (LBD), which can cause hallucinations and other symptoms.

Lewy body dementia, which affects about 1.3 million Americans, is a type neurodegenerative disease that has many attributes similar to both Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. Memory and cognitive problems are some of the common symptoms of Lewy Body Dementia. But its disease processes are much more closely tied to Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s disease and Lewy Body Dementia are both caused by the buildup of small misfolded protein deposits in brain tissue known as alpha-synuclein. This is a different type of naturally-occurring protein than tau and amyloid plaques, which are the hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease.

Williams’ wife has said Robin Williams was in “the early stages of Parkinson’s disease” before he committed suicide.

Lewy Body Dementia is “very complex and it requires treating a much broader range of symptoms to maximize quality of life,” Angela Taylor, director of programs at the Lewy Body Dementia Association, told CBS News. Symptoms of the disease can include memory, cognitive and motor problems, muscle stiffness, gait problems and hallucinations. Currently, there’s no cure for Lewy Body Dementia, which means doctors must help patients manage each of these symptoms independently when they emerge.

Taylor added that the disease can be difficult to diagnose since there’s not currently a medical test to differentiate Lewy Body Dementia from other types of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. Many of the symptoms associated with Lewy Body Dementia can be similar to Alzheimer’s disease. For example, a decline in cognitive abilities is one of the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease; it’s also associated with Lewy Body Dementia, but is not typically a symptom of Parkinson’s disease.

This is why Lewy Body Dementia is also the most frequently misdiagnosed form of dementia. A survey conducted by Taylor’s organization found Lewy Body Dementia patients spent an average of 18 months seeking medical evaluations and visited an average of three or more doctors before receiving a diagnosis.

“The report indicates that [Williams] was being treated for Parkinson’s and that is one of the features of dementia with Lewy Bodies,” said Taylor. “Hallucinations are a core feature of Lewy Body Dementia.”

Treatment for this type of dementia can be challenging. The antipsychotic medications used for patients with Alzheimer’s to manage psychiatric problems often are not tolerated by people with Lewy Body Dementia. According to the Lewy Body Dementia Association, as many as 50 percent of Lewy Body Dementia patients placed on antipsychotic medications can experience a worsening of symptoms and the impact can even be fatal.

The most common symptoms of LBD include:

  • Impaired thinking, such as loss of executive function (planning, processing information), memory, or the ability to understand visual information
  • Fluctuations in cognition, attention or alertness
  • Problems with movement including tremors, stiffness, slowness and difficulty walking
  • Visual hallucinations (seeing things that are not present)
  • Sleep disorders, such as acting out one’s dreams while asleep
  • Behavioral and mood symptoms, including depression, apathy, anxiety, agitation, delusions or paranoia
  • Changes in autonomic body functions, such as blood pressure control, temperature regulation, and bladder and bowel function

If you feel that you or a senior loved one is experiencing symptoms of LBD, see your medical practitioner right way. Doctors may be able to help patients manage each of these symptoms.


BLOG Date: Tuesday, November 24, 2015
Writer: Ryan Allen