Glen Campbell was the son of a sharecropper who went from childhood poverty to wealth and world fame as a country singer, but he spent his last several years suffering from dementia and died from its complications at age 81 on August 8, 2017.
He won five Grammys, sold more than 45 million records, had 12 gold albums and 75 chart hits and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005. He appeared in several movies including True Grit with John Wayne, and each week from 1969 to 1972, 50 million people listened to the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour on CBS television. His best-known hits include Wichita Lineman, By the Time I Get to Phoenix, Galveston, Southern Nights and Rhinestone Cowboy.
Early Life and Career
He was born on April 22, 1936, at the height of the great depression in rural Arkansas, where his father sharecropped 120 acres of cotton. He was the seventh son in a family that was so poor that they had no electricity and all 12 children had to pick cotton in the fields. When he was four, his uncle bought him a $5 guitar from Sears Roebuck and taught him basic guitar playing. He never had any formal music training but by age six, he was playing and singing on local radio stations and in his church. At age 14, he quit school and worked in Houston with his brothers installing insulation and at a gas station. At age 17, he moved to Albuquerque to join his uncle’s band. There he met and married his first wife, 16-year-old Diane Kirk. They divorced four years later.
At age 22, in 1958, he formed his own band, the Western Wranglers. That same year, he moved to Los Angeles and played in several bands. He never learned how to read music, but by age 26 he had taught himself to play the banjo, mandolin and bass as well as the guitar, and was good enough to play background music for records made by Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Ricky Nelson, Dean Martin, and Nat King Cole. In 1964, at age 28, he played on tour with the Beach Boys. In 1969, his Gentle on My Mind was a best seller that made him so popular that all of his concerts would sell out. That same year The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour became a top show on CBS television. He was now a national celebrity and was asked to perform at the White House for President Richard M. Nixon and in London for Queen Elizabeth II.
At age 44, after three divorces, he embarked on a lengthy affair with 22-year-old singer Tanya Tucker, and the tabloids wrote about their many problems just about every week. By then, this once-impoverished child was so overwhelmed by his immense wealth and popularity that he sought refuge in alcohol and cocaine. In 1982 at age 46, he married Kimberly Woollen, who did everything in her power to stop his drinking and drugs. In 2003, in spite of her full-time watchfulness, he was arrested for driving while drunk and leaving the scene of an accident.
At age 75, Campbell announced to the world that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and would go on one last tour. He and his wife planned on it lasting just five weeks, but it ended up lasting two years, ending on November 30, 2012. His wife felt that exposing him to the abundant love of his fans was the most effective treatment for his disease. The touring band included three of his musician children, daughter Ashley and sons Shannon and Cal. In all, he gave 152 concerts where he showed progressive loss of memory, but people packed stadiums just to hear this great folk singer. By age 78, he had lost almost all of his memory and his ability to speak, and was barely able to recognize members of his family. At that point, his wife decided that he needed round-the-clock care in an assisted living center in Nashville. He died at age 81, six years after first being diagnosed.
Dementia Risk Factors and Symptoms
Eighty percent of North Americans over 85 suffer from some form of dementia. The use of alcohol, recreational drugs or tobacco increase a person’s chances of suffering dementia in later life. Alzheimer’s disease is a specific type of dementia in which the brain fills up with tangled proteins called tau bodies that are promoted by an over-active immune system as if a person’s body is trying to kill an invading germ, but no specific cause has yet been found. Progressive symptoms include:
• memory loss
• difficulty thinking or reasoning
• loss of ability to communicate with other people
• loss of ability to move or control muscles
• confusion and not recognizing family or old friends
• inability to find one’s way in familiar places
Risk factors for dementia include:
• all risk factors for heart attacks (Nihon Rinsho, May 2011;69(5):953-63) including atherosclerosis, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes (Nihon Rinsho, Apr 2014;72(4):612-7)
• previous strokes
• smoking (Am J Geriatr Psychiatry, Sept 2007;15(9):762-71)
• more than two drinks of alcohol per day (Am J Geriatr Psychiatry, Sept 2007;15(9):762-71)
• recreational drugs such as cocaine
• social isolation
• difficulty learning in younger years
• being either overweight or underweight (Am J Geriatr Psychiatry, Sept 2007;15(9):762-71)
• increased sleepiness in later life (Continuum, Apr, 2013;19(2 Dementia):372-81)
Factors associated with reduced risk include:
• higher levels of education
• a high plant diet
• varied leisure activities and hobbies (J Alzheimers Dis, 2014;42(1):119-35)
• an active social life
• exercise in later life (Nihon Rinsho, 2014 Apr;72(4):612-7)
• use of the mind to create and learn in later life (PLoS Med, Mar 14, 2017;14(3):e1002259).
The same lifestyle factors that protect your heart will also help to protect your brain. See Preventing Dementia