In many ways, Montel Williams defies description. At 60, he is vibrant, outspoken, and boasts a long and impressive list of credits. Renowned talk show host. Author. Entrepreneur. Former Marine. Navy submariner. Snowboarder. Multiple sclerosis survivor. And now, his latest role is fierce advocate for traumatic brain injury (TBI).
Healthline recently sat down with Williams to discuss the health issues and personal passions that have become the focal point of his professional life. March also happens to be Brain Injury Awareness Month and as you’re about to find out, making people aware has become Montel’s mission.
TBI: Suffering in silence
The moment you ask Williams about TBI, he launches into numbers. And the numbers are sobering: “In the United States alone right now — suffering on a daily basis — are well over 5.2 million people who have some form of concussive or traumatic brain injury. Every single day 134 people die as a result of a concussive or traumatic brain injury. The annual cost in 2010 was $76.5 billion, including $11.5 billion in direct medical costs and $64.8 billion in indirect costs. This is all based on loss of wages, productivity, and those types of things … We have a silent killer in America that is putting pressure on every level of our society. That's why a month like this month is so important.”
For many, the term “TBI” tends to conjure up images of those whose bodies are exposed to extremes, like football players or soldiers who have seen active duty. As a former military man himself, the prevalence of TBI in veterans is a big part of the picture for Williams. But he is also quick to point out that TBI can be caused by any bump, blow, or jolt to the head that disrupts the normal function of the brain. Initially, it may not cause anything other than confusion or very brief loss of consciousness. But it can get more severe over time. Williams has become well-versed on the topic and describes it this way: “You may have a total loss of consciousness, but when you wake up you can have things like memory loss and then, very mild symptoms like tingling or numbness or poor balance, things that you might think, oh it's just going to go away, but they don't go away.”
Progressive symptoms can range from headaches to mood swings to ringing in your ears. According to Williams and based on his work with the Brain Injury Association of America, “There are more than 300,000 people a year that have that happen and don't even get it checked. They wind up at the doctor's six and seven months later because of residual symptoms. This is why it's so important that people pay attention.”
The similarities between TBI and MS
Williams also admits that he has personal reasons for his interest in TBI. “When you look at the brain of a person who has MS, their brain is riddled with scars, because most people don't even understand that MS means multiple sclerosis, which in Latin means multiple scars. We have multiple scars throughout the gray matter or the white matter in our brains, and our spinal cords.”
Williams hopes that advocating for research and treatment in the world of traumatic brain injury will open doors to discovery and hope for people with MS and other demyelinating diseases. One of the ways he’s playing his part is by advocating for access to trials.
Brain injury trials
Clinical trials exist, and Williams wants to make it easier for people to find them. He has created BrainInjuryTrial.com, to allow people to go online and see if they, or a loved one, might qualify to participate in a clinical trial based on their symptoms.
Again, the story behind the venture is personal. Six and a half years ago, Williams was invited to participate in a trial at the University of Wisconsin. He credits it with helping him manage his MS in new, highly effective ways. For him, it was a game-changer.
“There are trials that are going on right now that are in third phase that have shown hope at giving relief to patients. You could also be participating in a trial right now that could be helping you right now, six years, three, four, five years before anyone else gets an opportunity to be helped. If somebody told me I could take five years off of waiting, I'm in. Why would I suffer for another five years if I could be on the cutting edge and also be responsible for giving hope to so many others?”
The diagnosis that started it all
In 1999, Montel Williams was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. In his words, “I've probably had MS since 1980, and was just not diagnosed right, so let's say I've had it for 40 years.” Like many, the first thing he did was read everything he could get his hands on about MS.
“One website was talking about life expectancy, and it said for an African American male, it reduces the life expectancy anywhere between 12 and 15 percent. This was 2000, so I'm looking at this and thinking, it said the life expectancy of an African American male at that time was 68 1/2. If life is reduced by 15 percent, that would be 9.2 years off of 68 years. That's 59.1. That means I'd be dead right now. I'm 60. At the time when I heard that, that only gave me like nine years to live. I'm like, are you crazy? That ain't happening.”
Beating the odds … and the heat
Anyone who knows of Montel Williams knows he’s a man on a mission. Today, his mission is to keep himself healthy and help others do the same, whether through facilitating access to clinical trials or pitching his Living Well with Montel products. And in case you were wondering, he really does practice what he preaches. “I have a campaign this year, it's called ‘Six Pack at 60,’ and believe me, I have one and more. I'm snowboarding. This year alone, I already have 27 days and almost 30 days, and I'm going to get another seven or eight in before the end of the season. I'll probably go snowboarding in Chile this summer.”
Ironically, it was his MS diagnosis that initially got him into snowboarding. “Back when I first was diagnosed with MS, I had a really extreme heat aversion. Whenever the temperature got above 82 degrees, I had to leave North America. I was going to South America and spending summers in the winter in Santiago, Chile. I just figured I'd do something, and I just got into snowboarding when I was well over 45 years old. I started just to do something in the cold. It's so freeing. I actually learned to do it almost as a handicapped snowboarder. I had some really serious left hip flexor problems. My ankles didn't work like most. Because of this protocol and this special thing I had been doing with the device Helios, this has given me back my body.”
Preaching the power of food
If you think Williams is passionate about fitness, just get him started on the topic of food. Like many who live with chronic conditions, he is intimately aware of the power that nutrition has on the body.
“Thirty percent of your health is in your hands, the palm of your hand based on what you put in your mouth, based on the way you move that palm in some form of exercise, and the way you actually put it over your mouth to keep yourself healthy from screaming and yelling and those things, and checking yourself emotionally. Thirty percent of how you feel, you can control. How dare you not take responsibility for that 30 percent?”
“My 30 percent to me is 70 percent. I'm trying to impact every aspect of my life every second of the day in how I feel. I check in with my emotions. I check in with them. If I need to meditate in the middle of the day, I will. Anything I can do to reduce stress and inflammation, I'm going to do it, and as I do it, it's impacting the quality of my life.”
“Right now, I do a lot of smoothies and shakes. I eat every single day a protein shake with watermelon, blueberries, spinach, and a banana, along with some protein powder. That's normally my breakfast meal every single day. Now I'm changing my diet up a little bit, because I'm going to start front loading. As you get over the age of 60, and you really should start this when you're in your 50s, we have it really all wrong in our society. We eat a moderate breakfast, a medium lunch, and a really big dinner. We eat wrong. We should all be eating a very large breakfast, and eating more throughout the morning. That fuels your day. A moderate lunch and a very small dinner, and that dinner should really be consumed before 5:30, 6 o'clock, because you should allow yourself at least five hours between the time that you eat and the time that you go to sleep. It will allow the food to pass into your colon and get out of your stomach, so things like indigestion stop and start going away.”
Williams’ words of wisdom
When asked for his philosophy on living a happy, healthy life, Williams says this: “Flip the paradigm … in my third interview after my diagnosis with MS, I said this is really a blessing. It's a blessing because one, it's going to make me know more me than I ever knew in my life, because I'm never going to be defined by MS. I may have MS, MS will never have me. At the same time, at the end of the day, if I really work hard, I could make this better for anyone else with my illness. What legacy would be better to leave in life than to know when you're gone, you made life better for others?
Resources and further reading
- For more information on traumatic brain injury, go to Brain Injury Association of America.
- Download the MS Buddy app to connect with others who have MS.
- Check out what MS bloggers are saying. Healthline’s “Best Multiple Sclerosis Blogs of the Year” will get you started.
- For more information on advocating for MS, go to the National MS Society.