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What to know about Tony Bennett's health struggles, from Alzheimer's to addiction

Bennett died on July 21, 2023, after a seven-year battle with Alzheimer's disease.
/ Source: TODAY

Legendary singer Tony Bennett has died at age 96, just a few weeks shy of his 97th birthday. Bennett had been public about his health struggles before his death, with his family sharing in 2021 that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's a few years prior.

Bennett's death was confirmed to in a statement from his publicist, Sylvia Weiner.

Bennett died early in the morning of July 21, 2023, in his hometown of New York City. His singing career spanned 70 years and included collaborations with artists such as Lady Gaga and Amy Winehouse. In addition to being a musician, painter and philanthropist, Bennett also served as a foot soldier in World War II, where he helped liberate a Nazi war camp. After his experience in the war, he became staunchly anti-violence and marched with Martin Luther King Jr. at Selma in 1995. He also was open about his experience with drugs and the negative impact they had on his life.

How did Tony Bennett die?

It's not clear how Tony Bennett died based on the statement to from his publicist. The statement mentioned his seven-year battle with Alzheimer's disease.

"Tony Bennett, born Anthony Dominick Benedetto in Astoria, Queens on August 3rd, 1926, has passed away in his hometown of New York City at the age of 96 earlier today," the statement read. "The beloved singer, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in 2016, is survived by his wife, Susan Benedetto, his two sons, Danny and Dae Bennett, his daughters Johanna Bennett and Antonia Bennett and 9 grandchildren."

Alzheimer’s disease, a form of dementia, can cause complications that can result in death, according to the Mayo Clinic. The loss of brain function that the condition leads to over time can cause dehydration, malnutrition or infection, which can be fatal.

Bennett was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2016

In 2021, the singer's family shared that he'd been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease five years prior. Alzheimer's disease is a progressive brain condition with no cure that causes the brain to shrink and cells to die. Alzheimer's is the most common form of dementia, where a person may lose their memory, cognitive function and social skills, according to Mayo Clinic.

The Bennett family shared the news of his Alzheimer's diagnosis with the AARP Magazine in spring 2021. At the time, they said he could still recognize family members but struggled to understand what was happening around him. His wife, Susan Benedetto, who was also his primary caregiver, said there wasn't any concern he would wander away from their apartment or that he was struggling with rage or other emotions that may come with the illness.

"He is doing so many things, at 94, that many people without dementia cannot do,” his neurologist, Dr. Gayatri Devi, told AARP. “He really is the symbol of hope for someone with a cognitive disorder.”

“I have my moments and it gets very difficult,” Susan said. “It’s no fun arguing with someone who doesn’t understand you. But I feel badly talking about it because we are so much more fortunate than so many people with this diagnosis. We have such a good team.”

His daughter, Antonia Bennett, opened up to NBC affiliate WKYC in November 2022 about her famous father's diagnosis. She said she could tell something was off starting in 2015.

“I started to realize when we would talk about events in our mutual life together and he would erase big portions of it or kind of make his own story about it. I started to realize that maybe this wasn’t quite so normal,” Antonia Bennett said. 

She added that she thinks her father's love of music helped him manage his Alzheimer's: “He’s so good at going with the flow, and I really attribute that to what it is that he does for a living. He’s a musician. He’s been traveling for years and he just shows up. He’s so professional."

On June 20, 2023, Bennett shared a photo of himself with his wife on Twitter in support of Alzheimer's disease research.

The last few times Bennett was seen in public in New York City, he was in a wheelchair.

He spoke openly about his addiction to drugs

Bennett wrote in his 1998 memoir, "The Good Life," that he became swept away by drugs in the '70s when he and his family moved to Hollywood. At the time, he was married to his second wife, Sandra Grant.

"On top of everything else, the seventies drug scene was getting out of control," he wrote. "At every big party I'd go to, people were high on something. Cocaine flowed as freely as champagne, and I soon began joining in the festivities. At first, it seemed like the hip thing to do, but as time went on it got harder and harder to refuse it when it was offered. Compounded with my pot-smoking, the whole thing started to sneak up on me."

He later wrote that his friend and fellow musician Bill Evans' fatal overdose "made me think hard about my own drug use. I knew that somehow, something had to be done."

Bennett stopped using drugs, though. He reflected on this choice in a 2016 interview with the San Diego Tribune.

"When I was younger, I was foolish," he said. "I did a lot of drugs and all that. And then I learned, from experience, that I wasn’t doing the right thing, and I stopped (taking) all kinds of stimulants that are very bad for you. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. I have a natural life. I don’t have anything to hide or to stay away from."

And he struggled with depression

After he was divorced from his first wife, Patricia Beech, Bennett wrote in his 2016 memoir, "Just Getting Started," that he started experiencing depression.

"The Christmas season of 1965 was the worst I'd lived through since the time I was 10 and my father died. My wife, Patricia, and I had split up. I wasn't welcome at our family home in New Jersey, and I missed my two sons. I was living in a small, spiritless room in the Gotham Hotel and felt sad, depressed and lonely, yet too embarrassed to admit that to anybody and ask for companionship or cheer. For me, the season was cold and gray."

In the late '70s, he wrote in his memoir that he was dealing with multiple stressors, in particular struggles with his career and spending too much money, which led the IRS to come banging at his door.

"The strain was getting to be too much for me, and I began to experience long bouts of depression," he wrote.

Bennett almost died from a drug overdose

When he found out that the IRS was starting proceedings to take away his house, he wrote that he "overindulged and quickly realized I was in trouble."

"I tried to calm myself down by taking a hot bath, but I must've passed out. And I experienced what some call a near-death experience; a golden life enveloped me in a warm glow. It was quite peaceful. ... But suddenly, I was jolted out of the vision."

"The tub was overflowing and Sandra was standing above me. She'd heard the water running too long, and when she came in, I wasn't breathing. She pounded on my chest and literally brought me back to life."

"As I was rushed to the hospital, the only thought on my mind was something my ex-manager Jack Rollins had told me about Lenny Bruce right after Lenny's death from an overdose. All Jack said was, 'The man sinned against his talent.' That hit home. I realized I was throwing it all away, and I became determined to clean up my act."

He later opened up about this moment and the impact Rollins' quote had on him in a 2011 interview with CNN.

"That sentence did it for me. I realized that I thought I was doing well with the drugs and I really wasn't," he said. "I realized that I'm sinning against the gift that was given to me by nature. ... It really stopped me cold. I did not withdraw. I had no recovery period. The minute I stopped it, I felt relieved. I felt normal. I didn't have to hide to smoke or do other naughty things. All of a sudden, I was just honest."

His music helped him fight many of his health problems

Bennett noted in "Just Getting Started" that hearing a performance by Duke Ellington in the hallway of the Gotham Hotel help to pull him out of his depression following his first divorce. And when he later struggled with depression after his financial and professional struggles in the '70s, refocusing on music with the help of his son Danny Bennett helped turn his life around.

He also kept performing until the pandemic in 2020, several years after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. He would sometimes struggle backstage, but once he started to perform, few could tell that he was ill, AARP reported.

“Singing is everything to him,” Bennett's widow, Susan Benedetto, told AARP in 2021. “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."