Tony Bennett's family has revealed that the legendary singer has been living with Alzheimer's disease for the past few years.
Bennett, 94, was first diagnosed with the progressive brain disorder in 2016 yet continued to perform until March of last year when the pandemic began, his wife and son shared in the February/March issue of AARP The Magazine.
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Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia among adults and is characterized by the erosion of memory and thinking skills to the point where it destroys the ability to carry out the simplest tasks, according to the National Institute on Aging. More than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease, which is the sixth-leading cause of death in the country.
Bennett can still recognize family members, but often is not sure of his surroundings or what is happening around him, his wife, Susan, 54, told AARP The Magazine. He has not experienced the type of confusion that could lead him to wander from their New York City home or the rage and depression that can accompany 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, who is his primary caregiver, 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."
Music has remained a central part of life for Bennett, who had his first No. 1 song in 1951. The World War II veteran continued to perform a 90-minute set for years after being diagnosed with his usual flair to the point that no one suspected anything might be wrong.
He would sometimes be disoriented while backstage but had no issues once the announcer said his name to begin the performance.
"But that's because he already didn't understand," his wife said. "He would ask me, ‘What is Alzheimer's?’ I would explain, but he wouldn't get it. He'd tell me, ‘Susan, I feel fine.’ That's all he could process — that physically he felt great. So, nothing changed in his life. Anything that did change, he wasn't aware of."
Bennett also has been adhering to the Mediterranean diet and exercising three times a week with a trainer. A healthy diet and regular exercise are recommended by doctors in preventing Alzheimer's disease.
His last public performance was on March 11, 2020, at the Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank, New Jersey, but his neurologist has encouraged him to still rehearse twice a week to stimulate his brain.
“Singing is everything to him,” Susan said. "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 …'"
"There's a lot about him that I miss. Because he's not the old Tony anymore. But when he sings, he's the old Tony."
He also has another album of duets with Lady Gaga set to be released in the spring, which is a follow up to their 2014 bestselling album of standards, "Cheek to Cheek."
The songs on the new album were recorded in sessions that began in 2018, two years after his diagnosis, and continued through early last year. Lady Gaga was aware of his diagnosis and the family's decision to reveal it to the public.
"I wanted to check with her to make sure she was cool because she watches his back all the time," Bennett's son and manager, Danny, 66, told AARP. "She was like, ‘Absolutely, it's just another gift that he can give to the world.’"