What David Cassidy's sudden death reveals about dementia

QMedic Team

70s icon David Cassidy recently passed away from early onset dementia “No wonder you have red hair. Your brain is rusted!”

~Keith Partridge, The Partridge Family [1]

Teen heartthrob. 67. Gone.

Amidst the flurry of polarizing news during 2017, it’s quite possible that David Cassidy’s death didn’t bubble up to the top of your feed.

And yet Cassidy’s age and the circumstances surrounding his untimely death are significant, and should prompt us to study the debilitating form of early onset dementia that claimed his life.

While Cassidy’s iconic Partridge character Keith joked with Danny about his red hair rusting his brain, both Cassidy and his real-life family—including his mother and maternal grandfather—present a relevant case study in how dementia actually “rusts” the brain and strips away our independence as we age.

At the time of Cassidy’s death, he had been in the hospital for organ failure for a few days. The singer was waiting for a liver transplant.

Prior to his hospitalization, Cassidy had a rough year. He would forget the lyrics of his songs. During a performance in February, he fell off the stage.

With rumors emerging that he was back to abusing alcohol, the 70's teen heartthrob opened up about his dementia diagnosis. The singer received his diagnosis about two and a half years ago in 2015, when he was also battling an alcohol addiction.

At first, Cassidy was in denial, but a part of him knew what was coming. His mother, Everly Ward, also an actor and singer, had dementia until her death at age 89. In an interview, he recalls how the police rang him in the middle of the night. They had found his mother wandering in her nightgown, crying and lost.

His mother would spend the rest of her life in an Alzheimer’s care hospital. When he visited her, a single tear would drop from her eye. Cassidy confessed, "I feared I would end up that way." In fact, he instructed his 26-year-old son Beau to find a way to let him go and not let him live like that. 

After her death, Cassidy became the spokesperson of the Alzheimer’s Research & Prevention Foundation and Alzheimer’s Foundation of America. He would travel around the country, telling people about his mother's dementia and trying to increase donations to the organizations. Cassidy's work was even more poignant because it coincided with his own early onset dementia diagnosis.

What Is Early Onset Dementia?  

Early onset or young Dementia occurs when a person manifests dementia symptoms before age 65. Although this is rare, patients with an early onset dementia diagnosis account for about 5% of all patients. Specifically, of the 4 million Americans with memory loss conditions, 200,000 people have early onset dementia.

According to the World Health Organization, symptoms of dementia include getting lost in familiar places, losing track of time, forgetting recent events and people’s names. With time, it may result in people needing personal care which can facilitated by the use of medical alert system. Care is essential because over time, the sufferer becomes unaware of time and place. They may not recognize relatives and friends.

Early onset dementia progresses more rapidly than for someone diagnosed later in life. For instance, Cassidy lived for about three years before his premature death. Similarly, Australian musician and songwriter Malcolm Young had dementia for about three years before passing away on 18 November 2017 at the age of 64.

Sometimes people start displaying symptoms of dementia when they are 30-40 years old. Due to their young age, they face social stigma. For instance, they are considered to have gone mad. These patients may have many doubts about their condition due to their early age. Sufferers with early onset dementia are at risk of losing jobs and relationships due to the illness. And if they are not working, these factors tend to compound and have a dramatic impact on their livelihoods.

What Is the Difference between Dementia and Alzheimer's Disease?  

Dementia is not one single disease. It is a combination of symptoms shared by various diseases. Before the doctor deems a patient to have dementia they have to carry out numerous tests specific to the condition.

Alzheimer's Disease is the most prevalent type of dementia in the US. Currently, no cure exists for this fatal disease that claims many lives. From the age of 65, the risk of the disease doubles every five years. According to the Alzheimer's Association, the risk reaches nearly 50% after the age of 85. However, someone with Alzheimer’s can typically live from one to 26 years. 

Genetic Factors of Dementia

The genes that are thought to influence the early onset of dementia include APP, PSEN 1 and PSEN 2. Interestingly, evidence-based studies highlight that these genes may contribute to less than 1% of all Alzheimer's cases, but more than 60-70% of early-onset dementia cases. The genes are very rare. Researchers identified them in only a few hundred extended families globally.

These genes are considered deterministic genes. That means they directly cause the disease and all but guarantee that a person with them will develop the illness.

Risk genes increase the chances of dementia. APOE-e4 is one gene identified and believed to play a huge role in the development of the illness. Everyone inherits a copy of APOEb in several versions, which include e2, e3, and e4. If you inherit a copy of APOE-e4, you may have an increased risk of developing dementia. The Alzheimer’s Association notes that APOE-e4 can cause dementia symptoms to manifest earlier. It is also possible to inherit two versions of APOE-e4.

Bottom Line

Although dementia frequently has a snowball effect once diagnosed, 1/3rd of the cases may be preventable. Preventative measures include quitting smoking, finding ways to reduce high blood pressure, maintaining a healthy weight and incorporating exercise into your loved one’s daily regime.

Brain exercises and learning new skills are other ways of retaining brain fitness and managing the symptoms of dementia. Based on Cassidy’s case, it’s important to recognize that dementia and organ failure often go hand-in-hand. Dementia is not strictly associated with memory loss. If you are genetically predisposed to suffer from dementia like Cassidy, make sure to seek out advice from you doctor early—as early as your 30s for safe measure.


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