Gene Wilder decided to keep his Alzheimer’s diagnosis secret because he didn’t want children to be upset that “Willy Wonka” was sick.
In recent years, the Hollywood legend rarely made public appearances. And in his final days, Wilder was so frail that he was almost unrecognizable.
His fans remember him as the witty, hilarious star of Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, and Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory.
But in the final years of his life, his fragile health did not allow him to continue acting. On Sunday, he died from complications of Alzheimer’s at age 83. Only his family and closest friends knew that he was battling the disease.
Gene Wilder’s Cancer Nightmare
It was cancer, not Alzheimer’s, that had been the biggest medical issue for Wilder. He lost his beloved mother to ovarian cancer in 1957. His wife, Saturday Night Live star Gilda Radner, died of the same disease in 1989.1 Wilder himself was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1999. He underwent chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant.
In 2005, he declared himself cancer-free. “I’m in complete remission,” he told Larry King. “I’m alive and well.”2
But his thin appearance in recent months led to speculation the cancer had returned.3 When he attended the U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York last year, he seemed to have aged rapidly and had lost weight.
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But his fourth wife, Karen Boyer, insisted that he was still cancer-free. “The cancer hasn’t returned,” she said. “He’s as active as any man his age can be. He still gets out and about.”
However, he was secretly battling Alzheimer’s, disclosing his condition to only a few people around him.
Amazingly, even in the end stages of dementia, Wilder could still remember the names of those around him. Alzheimer’s “never stole his ability to recognize those that were closest to him,” said his nephew Jordan Walker-Pearlman.
4 Ways to Stave Off Alzheimer’s
How did Wilder manage this? Studies have shown several ways to slow Alzheimer’s progression:
- Play brain games. These are specially designed computer games. Much like lifting weights exercise your muscles, these games exercise your memory. Popular brands include Lumosity, Jungle Memory, and BrainHQ.
- Do yoga. One recent study found that yoga may be even more effective in strengthening memory than brain training.
- Take a multivitamin. Canadian researchers found that a comprehensive multivitamin can reverse brain aging.
- Stay social. Multiple studies show that seniors who stay socially active are mentally sharper.4 Be active in your church, see your friends often, engage with your family…anything that brings you face to face with other people.
Shortly after his death, his nephew said Wilder decided to keep his condition secret out of concern for his young fans. He wanted to children to smile when they saw him. He didn’t want them to be sad when they were told the man who played Willy Wonka had Alzheimer’s.
“The decision to wait until this time to disclose his condition wasn’t vanity, but more so that the countless young children that would smile or call out to him ‘There’s Willy Wonka,’ would not have to be then exposed to an adult referencing illness,” said Walker-Pearlman.
“He simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world.”
Gene Wilder brought plenty of extra smiles to everybody who saw his movies.
If you or someone you love is worried about Alzheimer’s, there’s something else you should know.
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In Good Health,
Executive Director, INH Health Watch