The First Signs Tony Bennett Had Alzheimer's, According to His Wife
The singer passed away on July 21 at age 96.
On July 21, 2023, singer Tony Bennett died at the age of 96, his publicist confirmed to the Associated Press. The details of his passing have not been shared with the public yet, but the vocalist had been living with Alzheimer's disease.
In February of 2021, Bennett and his family shared, for the first time, that the star was diagnosed with the disease in 2016 and that they had kept his condition private for the first several years. In a handful of interviews from that time, his wife, Susan Benedetto, now 56, gave fans some insight into Bennett's status, revealing the first signs they had of his cognitive issues as well as the activity helped to slow the progression of the disease. Read on for more.
Tony Bennett's wife explained when they first suspected that he might have Alzheimer's.
Speaking with CBS This Morning in 2021, Benedetto remembered the first inkling that Bennett might be showing symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.
"We came home one night after the show and he says, 'Susan, I can't remember the musicians' names,'" Benedetto told Gayle King. She also said that her husband knew then that he was experiencing something more serious than the forgetfulness that can sometimes come with age. "I just chalked it up to him being, at the time, late 80s, we forget things," she continued. "And he said, 'No, no, this isn't right.'"
The singer was officially diagnosed with Alzheimer's seven years ago.
For more celebrity news sent right to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.
She also shared why Bennett wanted to keep his diagnosis private.
"He always likes to say he's in the business of making people feel good," Benedetto told King. "And so he never wanted the audience to know if he had a problem. But obviously, as things have progressed, it becomes more and more obvious when you interact with Tony that there's something up. And so it just seemed that now was the right time."
The news first broke in an in-depth profile of Bennett in AARP the Magazine, which chronicled the first several years of his battle with Alzheimer's in detail, as he and his caregivers and family navigated his condition.
Bennett's Alzheimer's case was relatively mild at first.
At the time he shared the news with the world, Bennett had not experienced the entire breadth of Alzheimer's symptoms. His wife told AARP that he still recognized his family members, though he could have trouble identifying everyday objects or places.
"He is doing so many things, at 94, that many people without dementia cannot do," Bennett's neurologist Gayatri Devi, MD, told AARP in 2021. "He really is the symbol of hope for someone with a cognitive disorder."
According to the Alzheimer's Association, more severe symptoms of the disease include "disorientation, mood and behavior changes; deepening confusion about events, time and place; unfounded suspicions about family, friends and professional caregivers; more serious memory loss and behavior changes; and difficulty speaking, swallowing and walking."
Bennett's condition was apparent as he recorded a new album with Lady Gaga.
In 2014, Bennett collaborated with Lady Gaga on an album of duets called Cheek to Cheek. The AARP profile revealed that they've been working on a follow-up album for the past few years. Love for Sale was released in September of 2021. The article notes that in footage of the recording of the new album, Lady Gaga "keeps her utterances [to Bennett] short and simple," as experts recommend when engaging with someone with Alzheimer's. Though Bennett's voice was still up to the task of making an album, his cognitive deterioration visibly upset his duet partner. Journalist John Colapinto wrote:
"The pain and sadness in Gaga's face is clear at such moments—but never more so than in an extraordinarily moving sequence in which Tony (a man she calls 'an incredible mentor, and friend, and father figure') sings a solo passage of a love song. Gaga looks on, from behind her mic, her smile breaking into a quiver, her eyes brimming, before she puts her hands over her face and sobs."
Ahead of the album's release, in August 2021, Lady Gaga and Bennett performed two shows together at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. The concerts were recorded and released as a special, One Last Time: An Evening with Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga. The show's marked Bennett's retirement from live performance.
Performing and working helped slow the progression of Bennett's disease.
While it probably wouldn't be recommended for a more physically debilitating condition, Bennett was "strongly encouraged" to keep working after his diagnosis, AARP reported. That's because his neurologist and other Alzheimer's experts have seen the positive impact music and singing can have on patients, perhaps because it leverages the connection between emotion and memory. "It kept him on his toes and also stimulated his brain in a significant way," Devi said of Bennett keeping up his performance schedule through the first few years.
Sadly, COVID cut off that outlet for Bennett for a time, and his doctor told AARP the downturn had been noticeable. "This has been a real blow from a cognitive perspective. His memory, prior to the pandemic, was so much better," Devi said. "And he's not alone. So many of my patients are negatively affected by the isolation, the inability to do the things that matter to them. For someone like Tony Bennett, the big high he gets from performing was very important."
To stay active, part of Bennett's treatment plan included twice weekly rehearsals with his pianist, in which he transformed, as his wife put it, into "the old Tony."