Singer Tony Bennett has revealed that he has Alzheimer's disease—in fact, he's had the disease for more than four years.
Bennett and his family made the announcement through an in-depth interview with AARP that was published on February 1.
Bennett first started experiencing symptoms of his disease in 2015. Initially, he was having trouble remembering musicians' names onstage. Although he was 90 at the time, Bennett suspected it was more than just normal aging. And so, he went to have his concerns checked out and was eventually diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2016 by Gayatri Devi, MD, a neurologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan.
According to Dr. Devi, Bennett has some "cognitive issues, but multiple other areas of his brain are still resilient and functioning well."
"He is doing so many things, at 94, that many people without dementia cannot do. He really is the symbol of hope for someone with a cognitive disorder," she told AARP.
The news may come as a shock to many—after all, Bennett has continued to record and perform live, including with Lady Gaga, even after his diagnosis. But Dr. Devi says that, in addition to his medication, diet, exercise, and family support, it is singing that has actually helped keep Bennett in good health.
"(Singing and performing) kept him on his toes and also stimulated his brain in a significant way," Dr. Devi told AARP.
According to Bennett's wife and son, "backstage, [Bennett] could seem utterly mystified about his whereabouts. But the moment he heard the announcer's voice boom 'Ladies and gentlemen—Tony Bennett!' he would transform himself into performance mode, stride out into the spotlight, smiling and acknowledging the audience's applause. And start singing."
With the pandemic putting an end to his live stage performances, Bennett has experienced a slip in his memory. To help prevent this, Dr. Devi is encouraging Bennett to rehearse twice a week.
So how is it possible that Bennett has been able to give live performances for four years without even a hint that he has Alzheimer's? The link between music and the disease is a connection that researchers continue to study.
Carolyn Fredericks, MD, assistant professor of neurology at Yale School of Medicine, says that the motor memory associated with music is less vulnerable than other parts of the brain heavily affected by Alzheimer's. "For some time, Alzheimer's researchers have hypothesized that the areas of the brain that help us with musical memory are not affected by Alzheimer's pathology until very, very late in the process," she previously told Health.
Music may also be a useful therapy tool for those in the later stages of Alzheimer's.
"There's music therapy where you can take people in later stages of Alzheimer's who are seriously impaired and play music they're familiar with, giving them an electronic device that will let them revisit those songs," Greg Cole, PhD, a professor of neurology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, previously told Health. "That helps them connect with the past more effectively than asking them if they remember it."
While he's not at that stage of Alzheimer's, music has certainly been some form of therapy for Bennett—even long before his diagnosis.
"Singing is everything to him," his wife, Susan, told AARP. "Everything. It has saved his life many times. Many times. Through divorces and things. If he ever stops singing, that's when we'll know …"
To get our top stories delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Healthy Living newsletter