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MY TURN

Rita Hayworth's misdiagnosed struggle

November 20, 2006|Barron H. Lerner | Special to The Times

Today, someone suffering from forgetfulness is immediately assumed to have Alzheimer's disease. But it was only a few decades ago that famed actress Rita Hayworth's Alzheimer's was persistently misdiagnosed.

One of World War II's most popular pin-up girls, Hayworth began having trouble remembering her lines during the 1960s, while in her 40s. She drank heavily at times, and her fellow actors largely suspected alcohol as the cause. So did her doctors.

In the 1970s, as Hayworth's mental status worsened, she experienced several distressing public spectacles. The worst was in 1976, when she became agitated on a plane trip to London, and photos of the disheveled actress were broadcast worldwide.

Although the original patient diagnosed with what came to be known as Alzheimer's disease was a woman in her 40s, just like Hayworth, physicians had largely forgotten the disease between the discovery of the disease by German physician Alois Alzheimer in 1906 and the 1970s.

There were other blinders in Hayworth's case. Her colleagues and friends engaged in extensive denial, continuing to book her for appearances and take her to parties. And like many Alzheimer's patients, Hayworth, despite increasing confusion and memory loss, remarkably rose to the challenge on occasion. She somehow successfully played the role of a gun-slinging mother in the 1972 film "The Wrath of God."

The actress avoided doctors, who always lectured her about drinking. But finally, in 1979, New York psychiatrist Ronald Fieve made a diagnosis of Alzheimer's, a dementia caused by plaques and tangles in the brain. Two years later, the diagnosis was made public.

By this time, doctors had realized that memory loss in the elderly -- which was much more commonplace than in the young -- was also often due to Alzheimer's.

Hayworth, who died at age 68 in 1987, would become the first public face of Alzheimer's, helping to ensure that future patients did not go undiagnosed. Today, thanks in large part to Hayworth and Ronald Reagan, who went public with his diagnosis in 1994, federal funding for Alzheimer's research has dramatically increased from $146 million in 1990 to more than $650 million.

Unbeknownst to her, Hayworth helped to destigmatize a condition that can still embarrass victims and their families.

"It's upsetting that we all thought that she was drinking and we attributed all of her behavior to her being an alcoholic," Hayworth's nephew, Richard Cansino, recalled after her death. "I feel guilty I perceived it that way."

Barron H. Lerner, a historian and physician at Columbia University Medical Center, is the author of "When Illness Goes Public: Celebrity Patients and How We Look at Medicine" (Johns Hopkins, 2006).

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