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Updated: Thu, 14 Aug 2014 18:14:36 GMT | By CBC News, cbc.ca

Robin Williams was in early stages of Parkinson's disease, wife says



Robin Williams CBC

Robin Williams CBC

Robin Williams, the iconic comedic actor who died Monday, was in the early stages of Parkinson's disease at the time of his death, according to a statement from his wife.

Williams, 63, died of suicide at his Tiburon, Calif., home, according to local police.

Susan Schneider released a statement Thursday revealing that as well as depression, her husband was also struggling with a Parkinson's diagnosis.

Below is her entire statement:

“Robin spent so much of his life helping others. Whether he was entertaining millions on stage, film or television, our troops on the frontlines, or comforting a sick child — Robin wanted us to laugh and to feel less afraid.

"Since his passing, all of us who loved Robin have found some solace in the tremendous outpouring of affection and admiration for him from the millions of people whose lives he touched. His greatest legacy, besides his three children, is the joy and happiness he offered to others, particularly to those fighting personal battles.

"Robin's sobriety was intact and he was brave as he struggled with his own battles of depression, anxiety as well as early stages of Parkinson's disease, which he was not yet ready to share publicly.

"It is our hope in the wake of Robin’s tragic passing, that others will find the strength to seek the care and support they need to treat whatever battles they are facing so they may feel less afraid.”

Actor Michael J. Fox, who has long had the disease, is known for his efforts to fund research into it. He tweeted his shock at the news Thursday, saying Williams had supported the cause before his death.

On mobile? See Michael J. Fox's tweet here. 

What is Parkinson's? 

Parkinson's disease is a neurodegenerative disease that most notably affects a person's movements, according to the Parkinson Society of Canada. 

Movement is normally controlled by dopamine, a chemical that carries signals between the nerves in the brain. In Parkinson's, cells that normally produce dopamine die, leading to a variety of symptoms:

- Tremors. 

- Slowness and stiffness. 

- Impaired balance. 

- Rigidity of the muscles.

Other symptoms include:

- Fatigue. 

- Soft speech. 

- Problems with handwriting. 

- Stooped posture. 

- Constipation. 

- Sleep disturbances.

According to the Parkinson's Disease Foundation, about a million people in the U.S. suffer from the disease, with men being one and a half times more likely to get it. Almost 100,000 Canadians have Parkinson's.

Currently there is no known cure but patients can live with the disease for many years.

Pop star Linda Ronstadt revealed in 2013 that she had Parkinson's and said the disease had robbed her of her ability to sing. Boxer Muhammad Ali, the late radio personality Casey Kasem and the late Pope John Paul II are among other well-known figures diagnosed with the disease.

Symptoms are often treated with medication and various forms of therapy including physical therapy, occupational therapy, exercise and speech therapy. Some people with Parkinson’s may benefit from surgery. 

Parkinson’s progresses at a different rate for each person. But the Parkinson Society of Canada says that as time goes on "non-motor symptoms may also appear, such as depression, difficulty swallowing, sexual problems or cognitive changes."

There is no cure. 

Struggle with depression

Dr. Tanya Simuni, director of the Parkinson's Disease and Movement Disorders Center at Northwestern University's medical school in Chicago, said patients often react to the diagnosis with surprise and despair.

Depression is often present even in early stages and can sometimes precede tremors that help doctors make the diagnosis, Simuni said.

Referring to Williams, she said it's important to emphasize that not everyone who is depressed is at risk for Parkinson's, "especially in this tragic case."

She noted that many can live for years without severely debilitating symptoms, but also that 20 years after diagnosis, as many as 80 per cent develop dementia. Antidepressants are among drugs commonly prescribed for the disease, along with medication to help control jerky movements.

Dr. Christopher Gomez, neurology chairman at the University of Chicago, said while it makes sense to think that a diagnosis could make someone feel depressed, depression and Parkinson's have a deeper, more organic connection. They are thought to affect the same regions of the brain, although their neurological relationship isn't well understood, he said.

"It's downright curious that there's so much depression in Parkinson's," Gomez said.

Robin Williams had been battling severe depression recently, said Mara Buxbaum, his press representative. Just last month, he announced he was returning to a 12-step treatment program he said he needed after 18 months of nonstop work. He had sought treatment in 2006 after a relapse following 20 years of sobriety.

He was last seen alive at home about 10 p.m. Sunday, according to the Marin County coroner's office. Shortly before noon, the Sheriff's Department received an emergency call from the home, where the star of Good Will Hunting, Mrs. Doubtfire, Good Morning, Vietnam and dozens of other films was pronounced dead.

Sheriff's officials said a preliminary investigation determined the cause of death was suicide due to asphyxia. 

Schneider and Williams married in 2011. 

Williams had three children: Zachary, 31, Zelda, 25, and Cody, 19. 

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