Robin Williams

My brother is of the opinion that the reporting on Robin Williams’s suicide and his Parkinson’s diagnosis was sloppy.   “They make it sound like you can take a blood test to diagnose PD,” my brother says.  “They make it sound like the PD caused the suicide.”

Robin Williams as Mork

Robin Williams as Mork

So, let’s clarify a few things:

–First of all, condolences to folks who were Robin Williams fans.  I never counted myself as a fan, but the world is poorer  when it loses another funny man.

–No, there is no blood test or other objective measure to detect PD.   I did not see any reporting that implied Williams’s diagnosis was….too quick?  too slow?  done by a  blood test?  PD diagnosis is the result of observation by a trained clinician (possibly a GP, but typically a neurologist) together with a medical history.   Tremors alone are not sufficient for a PD diagnosis, and indeed, you can have PD without tremors (and tremors without PD).  Diagnosis may be quick (it was in my case, once I finally saw an expert) or it may take a long time (I did get a second opinion, and the whole diagnostic process took 5 months from when symptoms first appeared, mostly because of the difficulty of getting an appointment with a neurologist.)

–I was annoyed that one of Williams’s buddies claimed that his PD medication “caused” the suicide.   I hope this uneducated opinion does not cause anyone to drop their PD medication.  On the other hand, PD medications can have side effects  — the drugs are messing with your brain chemistry, after all.   I am awaiting the hallucinations and compulsive gambling that are supposed to be side effects of the dopamine agonist I am taking.  No luck — no little green men yet…Dang!

–It has been widely reported that Williams battled depression for years.  So, it’s not much of a leap to guess that the depression “caused” the suicide.  Did the PD diagnosis push him “over the edge”?  Maybe.  You’d have to be a Borg to not be startled by getting this diagnosis.  (I sure was.)

–Does PD cause depression?  Short answer: Yes.  Longer answer: Maybe.  Per the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, “Up to 60 percent of people with Parkinson’s experience mild or moderate depressive symptoms. In fact, research suggests that the disease itself causes chemical changes in the brain that may lead to depression.”   Depression is one of several “non-motor symptoms” that are getting increased attention from PD researchers and clinicians versus the “motor symptoms” you associate with PD (tremors, gait issues, head bobbing, etc.)

–My brother urged me to write about the media’s myths about PD.  Wow…this would imply the media wrote about PD.  If it weren’t for famous people getting the disease, you would never have heard of Parkinson’s.  Thank God for Michael J. Fox — he’s singlehandedly raised awareness about PD (in addition to raising over $350 million for research!)  Whew…I guess this means I don’t have to dump an ice bucket over my head to raise awareness!

–There are a few myths I can think of:

–PD is characterized by someone with a trembling hand. — Nope, you can have PD without the tremors, and conversely, there are many causes of hand tremors.  When I go to PD conferences, people think I am a researcher, because my hand tremor is under control with medication.

–Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s are basically the same and lead to dementia.  — Nope.  The two diseases usually impact people over 60, and have a similar (but not identical) causation.  (The “garbageman” mechanism to clean out old cells is not working.)  Yes, you can have dementia as a PD patient, but (unlike Alzheimer’s) the march to dementia is not a sure thing.  (Yay!!)

–Parkinson’s is a death sentence.  –Nope.  I have met people in their 90s who have PD.   Yes, they have symptoms, but it’s not the same severity/ if you had (say) cancer or COPD.  I sometimes wish I had kept quiet about having PD.  Now I routinely have friends look deep into my eyes and say solicitously in a tone that implies I only have three days to live, “But how are you doing?”

About Laura Kennedy Gould

Author of "The Magic Trick -- Life with Parkinson's"
This entry was posted in Parkinson's Basics, Parkinson's People, Side Effects and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Robin Williams

  1. Jean says:

    Laura,I hadn’t seen this post because it was done while we were still in Spain. But we had heard about Robin Williams death at that time. Both Don and I were big fans of his and were very sad to hear of his depression, leading to his suicide. Your article is excellent explaining the differences in PD, dementia, etc. The simplification of medical diagnoses is something we all fall into at times.

  2. Edmund R. Kennedy says:

    Excellent!  Not required, but now you may want to shop your article around to PD advocacy groups for their use. 


  3. Lucy Kennedy says:

    Informative and extremely well written!

    Sent from my iPad


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