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Ted Turner reveals he has Lewy body dementia

Originally posted Friday, September 28, 2018 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

Media mogul Ted Turner has revealed he has Lewy body dementia, a progressive brain disorder comparable to Alzheimer’s.

The 79-year-old largely retired businessman spoke with former “Nightline” host Ted Koppel for an interview with “CBS Sunday Morning” that’s set to air in full on Sunday Sept. 30. The network revealed his diagnosis Friday.

“It’s a mild case of what people have as Alzheimer’s. It’s similar to that. But not nearly as bad. Alzheimer’s is fatal,” Turner told Koppel from his 113,000-acre ranch near Bozeman, Mont. “Thank goodness I don’t have that. But, I also have got, let’s — the one that’s — I can’t remember the name of it.”

He eventually said, “Dementia. I can’t remember what my disease is.”

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Turner then described some of the negative effects: “Tired. Exhausted. That’s the main symptoms, and forgetfulness.”

Lewy body dementia is a serious disease and it can pose problems with memory, moving, sleep, as well as other physical and cognitive functions symptoms, according to the Atlanta-based Lewy Body Dementia Association. Those with Lewy body dementia are prone to hallucinations and have issues with balance that can lead to falls. It is often misdiagnosed because there is no specific test for it

[UPDATE: After this story posted, I received several comments from people who have had parents, spouses and other family members who suffer from Lewy body dementia. They felt Turner was downplaying its potential severity, saying it is by no means milder than Alzheimer’s and in many cases could be worse. A 2006 medical study showed the average life expectancy for someone diagnosed with Lewy body dementia is actually worse than that with Alzheimer’s.]

Phillip Evans, vice president and chief communications officer of Turner Enterprises and a longtime Turner confidante, declined to comment.

In the 1970s, Turner became Atlanta’s colorful maverick who amassed nicknames such as “Captain Outrageous” and “Mouth of the South.” In 1976, he turned TBS into the first national satellite-operated “superstation.” That same year, he purchased the Atlanta Braves, then won the America’s Cup yacht race the following year. But his biggest contribution to the city came in 1980, when he launched the very first 24-hour news station.

Facing down skeptics, he built what was originally derided as “Chicken Noodle News” into a hugely profitable news operation with bureaus all over the world.

He sold Turner Broadcasting to Time Warner in 1996 and was fired from the company in 2000, soon after the merger with AOL that cost him $8 billion of his then-$10 billion fortune.

Nonetheless, he focused on philanthropy, donating $1 billion to the United Nations. He also used his riches to scoop up real estate. For a time, he was among the top private landowners in the United States, with more than 2 million acres. An active environmentalist, he owns the largest bison herd in the world and sells bison burgers at his Ted’s Montana Grill chain.

His name still graces Midtown’s Turner Broadcasting operations, and Turner Classic Movies still plays old Rita Hayworth and Clark Gable flicks. However, Turner Field is now Georgia State Stadium.

Unlike some of his peers, such as Rupert Murdoch and John Malone, Turner is no longer active in the media world and has kept himself largely out of the public eye for the past 15 years, doing interviews sparingly and occasionally accepting a lifetime achievement award.

In the pre-taped interview with Koppel, Turner lightly criticized the network he founded, saying CNN relies too much on politics.

“They’d do better to have a more balanced agenda,” he said. “But that’s, you know, just one person’s opinion.”

He also said he considered running for president while married to actress Jane Fonda in 1999, but she talked him out of it.

Though Turner spends much of his time on his ranch in Montana, he still keeps a penthouse in downtown Atlanta, from which he can see CNN headquarters. He joined Fonda to celebrate her 80th birthday in December at The Whitley in Buckhead, along with actresses Rosanna Arquette and Catherine Keener, playwright Eve Ensler, and Spanx founder and fellow billionaire Sarah Blakely.

Forbes now ranks Turner as the 1,084th richest person, with an estimated $2.2 billion in net worth.

Bill Tush, a journalist and host who worked with Turner for more than 25 years and still lives in Atlanta, said he last saw Turner in 2015, when the city of Atlanta changed the name of part of Spring Street to Ted Turner Drive.

“He was joking with me, wondering what he was supposed to do with a street named after him,” Tush said. “I said, ‘I guess you have to clean it!’ He laughed.”

Tush said there are plans for an 80th birthday party in Atlanta for Turner in November.

Over the years, Turner has been unusually frank about his medical issues. In 2012, he told the Hollywood Reporter that he saw a psychiatrist monthly, but added, “I’m not in therapy. It’s just somebody to talk to.” He publicly acknowledged taking lithium for a few years, but now believes he was misdiagnosed as manic depressive. Rather, he said, he has a mild-to-moderate case of anxiety. “But I don’t suffer from depression. The word doesn’t exist for me.”

He also told the Hollywood Reporter that he has an irregular heartbeat and sleep apnea — and that he wears hearing aids.

Lewy body dementia affects about 1.4 million Americans, according to the Lewy Body Dementia Association. In comparison, about 5.7 million have Alzheimer’s, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. The late Georgia governor and senator Zell Miller, who died in March at age 86, was diagnosed in 2016 with Lewy body dementia. Comic Robin Williams, who took his life in 2014, was diagnosed with it as well.

RELATED: Turner celebrated his ex-wife Jane Fonda’s 80th birthday in Atlanta last year

About the Author

Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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