Ted Danson Opens Up About the Health Struggle He’s Dealt With for Years: ‘Fear Is a Horrible Place To Live’

Updated: Mar. 29, 2024

The beloved actor wants sufferers not to feel shame and shares the personal habits that help keep him young.

He’s always had a “look” for the screen—and at age 76, he’s the same Ted Danson we knew in his Cheers days. As enduring as his career’s been, Danson is opening up for the first time about a decades-long health struggle that had started not long before he went behind the bar as Sam Malone.

Danson is a spokesperson in the current Bristol Meyers Squibb campaign ‘SO, Have You Found It?’ to raise awareness about treatment options for moderate to severe plaque psoriasis, a condition he says he’s been managing for 50 years. Plaque psoriasis is an immune system condition that commonly causes flaking, scaling and itchiness around areas like the scalp, knees and elbows for around 3% of Americans.

Dermatologist Jennifer Soung, MD joined Danson in a conversation with The Healthy by Reader’s Digest about how far psoriasis treatments have come in recent decades, along with Danson’s holistic lifestyle in partnership with Mary Steenburgen, his wife of almost 30 years.

The Healthy by Reader’s Digest:  Ted, we’ve generally known you to be the cool, collected character. It’s great to see you sharing about a condition that can cause self-consciousness. Do you remember your first flare-up, and which triggers have you identified?

Ted Danson: I was 25 when I went to the doctor and asked what was going on: “What is this patch of skin that didn’t look good?” It was kind of flaky, and he described what was going on, and it was very scary, because there wasn’t an easy fix. The potential for it getting worse and spreading all over my body was a huge, demoralizing effect on my emotional life. I was always feeling a bit like a phony and all of that.

And that lasted and got worse. I tried different treatments that were more topical. Then about 15 years ago, I met a dermatologist, and the advancements in medicine and how they can treat psoriasis were huge. It was a game-changer. They started treating it systemically. I’ll let Dr. Soung fill in—I’m talking as a layman on what I barely know. But it changed my life.

And then, I don’t think you ever get rid of plaque psoriasis, but I don’t see it anymore. [The treatment] has muted it so much that I live plaque-free. … You don’t have to be victimized.

The Healthy: Dr. Soung, “life-changing” is a powerful descriptor. Can you talk about some of the treatment options that are available? 

Dr. Soung: I always tell patients first to find the right doctor so they can talk about and figure out the right treatment options for you. There are so many treatment options, making it so much fun as a dermatologist treating patients with psoriasis now.

Ted referred to the fact that in the last 20 years, we’ve really had a revolution in the number of treatments for psoriasis and have a better understanding of the inflammatory pathways for psoriasis. So there are creams and ointments. There are also pills that patients can take as well as injections. And here today, we’re specifically encouraging patients to talk openly about psoriasis with their healthcare providers and explore treatment options including systemic oral options like SOTYKTU to see if it’s the right fit for that patient. 

The Healthy: Ted, you touched on this, but when it comes to something like psoriasis there’s also a mental health aspect to consider if someone is experiencing self-consciousness around their flare-up. Have you experienced any of that? 

Ted Danson: I certainly did. You do end up feeling less-than. You feel embarrassed. You feel like you have something you need to hide. You feel like you’re not 100% worthy. You get diminished. And that relief you can get now, because there are treatment plans, it’s life-changing. It really is. Even though most of the time, it’s not this deadly disease. It can lead to real problems, but it’s, “Oh, you have patchy, bad-looking skin, lighten up.” But the truth is, it has such an emotional impact on you.

Ted Danson on the set of CheersAaron Rapoport/getty images

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The Healthy: We’ve read that you’ve dabbled with a plant-based diet in the past. 

Ted Danson: Let’s emphasize and underline the word “dabble.” I’m an actor in Hollywood; I change my mind every five minutes. But I do know that my body responds—well, let me be real here: There are times when I’ve been vegetarian. There are times that I’ve been vegan. I sometimes think my body does need some animal protein. I don’t really eat—this is just me, I’m not saying this is how you get rid of your psoriasis or anything like that—but trying to eat a less inflammatory diet is important for your overall health, and it probably is a great thing to to do along with the treatment plan. I limit the amount of alcohol to almost none. I try to keep sugar out of my body. I try to eat gluten-free or no carbs at all, but that’s hard, so I just do gluten-free. Those things I know I can feel the impact on my body.

I also try to take care of my gut health. I think we’re discovering more and more that a lot of medicines that we take into our body or foods have a huge impact on our gut lining and I try to take care of that. I’d say trying to find a very low-inflammatory diet is a great way to go, and plant-based is probably the best way to do that. Do I do that all the time? No. 

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Dr. Soung: I’m going to chime in a little bit from a doctor’s perspective. What you’re hearing from Ted, like many patients, is that diet is very much a personal choice. I love the fact that he’s making lifestyle choices to improve or lessen the severity of his psoriasis and improve his overall health. And that’s what I remind patients, is that I want you to be healthy as a whole. 

The Healthy: Ted, beyond diet, can you talk a bit about how you stay active and at the top of your game at 76? 

Ted Danson. Prayer. Definitely prayer. Cardio, go on long walks if you don’t run so well anymore, weight lifting, weight bearing, all these things are proven to really be healthy for you, for your mental capacity as well. I mean, who would have thought that lifting some degree of weights is good for your brain? But it is treating yourself holistically. I’ve been trained to meditate and all of that. I do try to find quiet. I do try to be joyful. 

And you know what, fear: Fear is a horrible place to live. And sometimes having a condition like psoriasis makes you fearful. Now we’re getting way off-base here, but you’re either in a loving place or a fearful place. And so I think if you’re in a fearful place, you make decisions that aren’t necessarily good for you or your health. The idea is to empower yourself, take charge. It’s very powerful, and we are talking about psoriasis, but that’s an entry into your overall well-being. It’s so worthwhile a conversation. 

Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen attend the 96th Annual Academy Awards on March 10, 2024Mike Coppola/getty images
Ted Danson and wife Mary Steenburgen.

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The Healthy: We agree with all that! Is there a self-care routine you refuse to skip?

Ted Danson: Yes, I have to do a Wordle with my wife in bed before I get out. [laughs] Sorry. I’m laughing, but my relationship with my wife is a blessing, and we make sure we’re both in a place of joy as much as possible. We definitely deal with real life stuff. But I think having love zooming around is a great way to take care of your health. We both enjoy each other and want to be around for a long time, so we’re encouraging each other to go take long walks, fast walks, to eat correctly, to take care of yourself. Life’s a miracle, so do everything you can to enjoy it. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.