- The Washington Times - Friday, November 15, 2002

"That's the worst part of this disease. There's nobody to exchange memories with." (Nancy Reagan, Sept. 25, "60 Minutes II.")

Alzheimer's disease doesn't make special arrangements for anyone, even for the leader of the free world. In tragic irony, 20 years ago this week President Ronald Reagan launched a national campaign against Alzheimer's disease. In a historic White House ceremony, he drew national attention to Alzheimer's and defined it as a major health menace. He proclaimed November National Alzheimer's Disease Awareness Month, warning the American people of "the emotional, financial and social consequences of Alzheimer's disease." With vision and leadership, he argued for research as "the only hope for victims and families."

The brain is a miracle when it works, and a mystery when it fails. One of the most haunting, puzzling, and soon to be most costly of the brain's failures is Alzheimer's a degenerative, progressive, and terminal brain disorder.

Most people think of Alzheimer's strictly as memory loss. It is much more, although memory loss alone would be scary enough. Memories are the records of our lives the essential stuff of our identities and personalities the very essence of what we share with those we love.

On Nov. 5, 1994, Ronald Reagan wrote a courageous letter to the American people about his own diagnosis of Alzheimer's, and his 1982 presidential campaign against the disease became his family's personal struggle.

We have made giant strides toward fulfilling his vision, and now this Congress and President Bush have the opportunity to finish the battle he began. Congress has steadily invested public funds in Alzheimer's research over the past 20 years and the Alzheimer's Association has added millions in private funds.

That investment in research is now paying off. Science is at the point where effective treatment and prevention of Alzheimer's is within reach. The research infrastructure is in place; the paths for further investigation are clear. The missing ingredient is money. A $1 billion federal investment now will pay big dividends in the future.

When Ronald Reagan sounded his battle cry against Alzheimer's, an estimated 2 million people were suffering from this awful disease. Today, the number has grown to more than 4 million, with an additional 19 million family members suffering the emotional and financial impact 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Unfortunately, over the next 50 years, as many as 14 million baby boomers will be the next large pool of victims, unless we find ways to further slow down or stop the changes in their brains that might already be taking place.

The threat to so many American families should be enough to urge us to action, but the economic impact of the disease drives us as well. In just 10 years, the annual cost of Alzheimer's disease to Medicare and Medicaid will rise from $50 billion to more than $82 billion. Since 1998, estimates of the annual cost of Alzheimer's disease to American business have risen from $33 billion to more than $61 billion.

During this Alzheimer's Awareness Month, we reflect upon the extraordinary progress we have made as a nation these past 20 years:

Twenty years ago, there were no treatments for Alzheimer's disease; today, four Alzheimer drugs have been approved, and researchers are working to bring even more promising treatments, including a potential vaccine, to market.

Twenty years ago, we had little information on risk factors to point the way to prevention; today, there is growing evidence that known risk factors for heart disease, including high blood pressure and high cholesterol, may also increase the risk for Alzheimer's.

Twenty years ago, only a handful of scientists were studying Alzheimer's; now, thousands of scientists around the world are racing to find the answers.

Twenty years ago, Alzheimer scientists were working in isolation; today, 33 Alzheimer's disease centers are funded by the National Institute on Aging, where scientists collaborate to speed the search.

We are so close. Thanks to the dynamics Ronald Reagan set in motion two decades ago, science has changed the view of Alzheimer's disease from one of helplessness to one of hope. But this is no time to sit back and rest on a sense of accomplishment.

The answer is still research, research, and more research. Individuals and families living with the disease have joined the Alzheimer's Association in challenging Mr. Bush and Congress to increase the federal commitment to Alzheimer research.

We call on Congress to increase funding for the National Institutes of Health to $1 billion a year to continue the momentum in Alzheimer research. We call upon Mr. Bush to make this important cause his own by including in his budget for next year the necessary funds to accelerate the pace of research.

We are in a race against time. Without sufficient research resources now, we will lose that race.

We can change the course of Alzheimer's disease, for the 4 million people suffering today, for the 19 million family members who are caring for them, and for up to 14 million Americans who today face the fate that befell a man who means so much to us and to the world.

Testifying before the Senate about Alzheimer's disease shortly before her own death, Maureen Reagan took up her father's mission, calling upon Congress to "make this the last generation that would live without hope."

Both Ronald Reagan and Maureen always looked to a brighter horizon. Congress and Mr. Bush can ensure that we reach that horizon before the sun sets on another generation with Alzheimer's disease.

Dennis C. Revell is a public relations executive and son-in-law to President Ronald Reagan. He was married to the late Maureen Reagan for more than 20 years and currently serves on the National Alzheimer's Association Board of Directors.

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