by Rob Saint Laurent, MEd
Former athlete Bill Pettis was once poised for stardom yet somehow slid through the cracks, landing in the famous carnival-like scene that is Venice Beach, California.
In “The Rise and Fall of Bill Pettis, the Man with ‘The Biggest Arms in the World,’” David Davis of Los Angeles Magazine researched and interviewed the African-American who once marveled with his 23½-inch biceps (without steroids), regarded as the largest for any professional bodybuilder during the sport’s heyday in the 1970s.
At the peak of his career, the gentle giant’s imposing figure graced muscle magazines and even an advertisement for the 1984 Summer Olympics in LA—a poster for which he was compensated the lofty sum of one dollar.
After decades of off-and-on homelessness and eventual alcohol abuse, Bill had become a caricature of his former self, a peculiar boardwalk fixture dressed only in faded posing trunks, gaudy jewelry, and worn high-top sneakers, carrying a battered radio on his shoulder reminiscent of the ‘80s. Upon noticing tourists snapping his photo, he would turn and pose, the vast majority ignorant of his remarkable past.
Not long after Davis’s May 2015 article, Bill’s life would come full circle when his remaining family sent him a bus ticket home to Pennsylvania for a reunion of sorts.
Despite the wherewithal to pursue the trip, he never quite made it.
On September 30, 2016, PennLive.com reported that a passerby spotted the 69-year-old lying face-down in a lonely Dauphin County, Pennsylvania creek, ruled an accidental drowning.
Besides Bill’s body was a wet duffle bag containing a tin box of valuable possessions, including the Christian devotional Our Daily Bread and an old photo of himself with friend and brother in arms, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Along with failing health, both his family and the local coroner said he had been suffering from “some kind of confusion or dementia.”
NUMBER ONE FEAR
Today, people’s most significant health concern is not heart disease or cancer, but losing their mental faculties, says medical journalist Keith Souter, MD.*1
That issue is warranted as the World Health Organization predicts 75 million cases worldwide by 2030 and 132 million by 2050, from an estimated 47 million in 2015 (mostly low-middle income nations).*2
WHO and other experts reassure that dementia isn’t a normal part of aging.
Dementia is a syndrome, usually chronic and progressive, resulting from various brain illnesses that impact memory, thought, behavior, and activities of daily living.*2
In fact, states Dr. Souter, dementia is an umbrella term for over 200 forms, with Alzheimer’s the most common at 60–70 percent of cases and, according to the Centers for Disease Control, now the sixth leading cause of death among all adults and fifth leading cause in those 65 and older.
As the Mayo Clinic writes, dementia isn’t a specific disease, but a group of symptoms affecting cognitive and social abilities to the point of impairing daily function.*3
Though memory loss is part of it, Mayo Clinic and Souter note that not remembering by itself could mean something other than dementia such as chronic dehydration or B-vitamin deficiency.
Besides memory loss (usually noticed by someone close), dementia typically manifests in cognitive changes such as difficulty communicating or finding words, reasoning or problem solving, handling complex tasks, and in confusion and disorientation.
Psychologically, a person can exhibit personality changes, depression, anxiety, inappropriate behavior, and hallucinations, for example.
THE ROAD TO OBLIVION
In dementia, the brain shrinks in size as cells die faster than normal. With this is an overproduction of the protein tau by nerve cells that help them keep their shape. Excessive tau forms a tangled web over time that affects the function of nearby brain cells.*1 Additionally, there is a drop in the brain neurotransmitter acetylcholine which is vital for memory. *1 A healthy brain has many billions of neurons that transmit information to the body. But in Alzheimer’s, for example, communication is disrupted by tangles of tau and clumps of beta-amyloid protein, or plaques, which lead to premature cell death. Called progressive dementia, Alzheimer’s typically first affects memory components such as the hippocampus. Later, it moves to the cerebral cortex where it disrupts language, reasoning, and social behavior. Functionality is gradually reduced until all independence and, ultimately, one’s life is gone.*4
Is a U-turn possible once signs of dementia appear?
The Mayo Clinic writes that while progressive dementia like Alzheimer’s are irreversible, other types and dementia-like symptoms can be undone by addressing underlying causes. These can include a lack of vitamin B-1 (common in alcoholism and perhaps related to Bill Pettis’s decline), B-6, and B-12; hypoglycemia; medication reactions; hypoxia (inadequate oxygen to vital organs); and exposure to heavy metals. Underscoring this in Alzheimer’s News Today, January 18, 2017, edition reports “extremely high aluminum levels” were found in a brain study of patients with inherited forms of Alzheimer’s.
Besides aluminum-containing drugs, cosmetics such as deodorant, occupational exposure, and other sources, research is proving that aluminum in the environment from air deposition is on the rise—virtually unavoidable hazard for people everywhere.
Still, changeable risk factors for dementia include heavy alcohol use, cardiovascular risk factors such as high blood pressure and cholesterol, late-life depression, diabetes, smoking, and sleep apnea.
Though more research is needed, preventive steps might involve keeping mentally, physically, and socially active; following a healthy diet with at least several weekly servings of omega-3 fats (for example, salmon, sardines, walnuts); and getting enough vitamin D.
EARLY DETECTION AND TREATMENT
Diagnosing dementia can be challenging and involved.
To help start the process, Souter relates six questions that a general practitioner might use to indicate something is amiss.
A partner should ask the reader the following, or the reader of someone in question:
According to WHO, principal goals for the care of dementia include early diagnosis; optimizing physical health, cognition, activity, and well-being; detecting/treating behavioral and psychological symptoms; and providing information and long-term support to caregivers.
Though there’s no cure for progressive dementia, there are some medications such as Aricept that can help slow Alzheimer’s.
More importantly, experts say it’s vital to begin arranging a support network upon early detection, especially for the one-third of those with dementia who live alone.
Because dementia and mental illness isn’t yet a public health priority, current societal attitude and government policy are poor with discrimination common—particularly toward the homeless.
For Bill Pettis, his only real support was lost with the passing of father-figure Joe Gold (the founder of Gold’s Gym) in 2004.
But everyone has a story the world can ill-afford to miss, even more so in the face of such painful and undignified circumstances.
Said Schwarzenegger upon learning of his friend’s death, “Bill Pettis was one of my favorite training partners. He had the biggest arms I’ve ever seen, but more importantly, he had the biggest heart. I’m going to miss him.”
1 Souter, K. (2015, March 23). Six questions that could show if you’re at risk for dementia: How to cut your risk. How to cope if it strikes. And a simple test to help spot it early. Daily Mail.
2 World Health Organization (2017, April). 10 facts on dementia.
4 National Institute on Aging, National Institutes of Health. https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/what-happens-brain-alzheimers-disease
Rob Saint Laurent, MEd is a health writer and editor.