Reagan Rides into the Sunset

November 13, 1994

Former President Ronald Reagan's announcement that he has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease focuses much-needed attention on a widespread health issue. Some 4 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer's disease, for which there is no cure and which causes more than 100,000 deaths every year.

Mr. Reagan disclosed his condition in a handwritten note to the American people in which he expressed hope that by going public he might remove some of the stigma attached to the disorder.

"In opening our hearts, we hope this might promote greater awareness of this condition. Perhaps it will encourage a clearer understanding of the individuals and families who are affected by it," he said. Mr. Reagan also acknowledged that his condition is irreversible and that he had now begun "the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life."

In making such a public pronouncement, he showed a rare courage in facing the inevitable that was both poignant and admirable.

Alzheimer's is a degenerative disease that leads to impaired memory, reasoning and behavior and, ultimately, death. Perhaps its most terrifying aspect is that it gradually strips its victims of their dignity and reduces them to a state of childlike dependency. That fate now awaits a man who was once one of the world's most powerful figures.

Though research into the disorder has advanced rapidly in recent years, effective treatments remain far in the future. One of the most promising avenues of investigation involves identifying specific proteins in the genetic material of Alzheimer's victims that control the ability of brain cells to ward off damage. One day, it is hoped, genetic engineering may make it possible to create new drugs to stop or even reverse the course of the illness.

Meanwhile, Alzheimer's exacts a staggering toll. A recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health estimated the disease costs the nation $82.7 billion a year, making it the third most expensive health problem after heart disease and cancer. And the effect on families caring for an Alzheimer's victim can be emotionally as well as financially devastating.

In making public his condition, Mr. Reagan has joined the ranks of prominent Americans whose personal illness has focused national attention on a widespread health problem. For such unselfishness in the midst of what must be great personal anguish and uncertainty, he deserves the admiration and thanks of all Americans.

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