Alzheimer’s: Reagan’s long goodbye

Opted to announce his affliction to raise awareness

The shaky, handwritten words of the Nov. 5, 1994, note got straight to the point.

“My fellow Americans, I have recently been told that I am one of the millions of Americans who will be afflicted with Alzheimer's disease,” wrote Ronald Reagan, a simple admission of the illness the former president would live with for the last decade of his life.

“[W]e feel it is important to share it with you,” he wrote, because when he and first lady Nancy Reagan spoke openly about their previous health problems, “we were able to raise public awareness.”

Now, with an Alzheimer's diagnosis, “we hope this might promote greater awareness of this condition.”

While other famous people had succumbed to this irreversible, progressive neurological disease — including such figures as actress Rita Hayworth, writer E.B. White and British Prime Minister Harold Wilson — the Reagans’ admission took the prominence and public awareness of Alzheimer's to a new level.

Within a year, the first couple created the Ronald Reagan Research Institute with the Alzheimer’s Association, the nation’s oldest and largest advocacy, care and research organization for the disease.

For years, Mrs. Reagan and daughter Maureen Reagan, a former Alzheimer’s Association board member who died of skin cancer in 2001, spoke about the disease.

As a presidential couple, there’s no doubt the Reagans did great things “for the cause,” said Eric Hall, founder and chief executive of Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, another advocacy and educational nonprofit organization.

“I think he was really the first to lay it out,” said Mr. Hall, adding, “Mrs. Reagan’s championing of the cause has played an enormous role” in putting a spotlight not just on the disease but also the challenges of caregiving and the need for more research.

Since that 1994 announcement, there has been a “groundswell” of interest in Alzheimer's disease, he said, adding that the AFA, founded in 2002, now has 1,600 member organizations and 13 websites dealing with aspects of the disease.

Reagan’s diagnosis even arguably accelerated the disease being officially identified as a leading cause of death in America.

Prior to 1994, Alzheimer's was considered a debilitating disease, but not a fatal one. But in 1995, the federal government reviewed mortality data and realized that many deaths attributed to other causes (more than 20,000) were because of an underlying case of Alzheimer's.

That year, Alzheimer's was listed as the 14th-most-common cause of death in America, and the eighth most common among people aged 65 and older. An estimated 5 million Americans have the disease today.

It remains incurable and, while research has advanced, the only treatments available delay but don’t halt the loss of memory and of physical and mental functions.

In recent years, Alzheimer's has been part of the debate over whether tissues from human embryos should be used (and destroyed) by researchers seeking medical cures.

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About the Author
Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein covers family and social issues as a national reporter for The Washington Times. She has been a reporter for three decades, working in New York City and Washington, D.C. Since joining The Washington Times in 1985, she has been a features writer, environmental and consumer affairs reporter, and assistant business editor.

Beginning in 1994, Mrs. Wetzstein worked exclusively ...

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