Part 1: Celebrities with Alzheimer’s Disease- Ronald Reagan

Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive neurologic disorder of the brain leading to the irreversible loss of intellectual abilities, including memory and reasoning.  Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia.

Alzheimer’s was discovered by Dr. Aloysius Alzheimer, who was a German neuropathologist and psychiatrist. In 1901, while he worked at the city mental asylum in Germany, Dr. Alzheimer encountered a 51 year old patient named Mrs. Auguste Deter. The patient had distinct behavioral symptoms which did not fit any existing diagnoses, including rapidly failing memory, disorientation, confusion, and trouble expressing her thoughts. Her symptoms progressed relentlessly. This was the first published case of “presenile dementia” and in 1906, a colleague identified it as Alzheimer’s disease – naming it after Dr. Alzheimer.

According to the National Institute on Aging, there are estimated to be between 2.4 million and 4.5 million Americans who have Alzheimer’s. One third of all seniors in America die with Alzheimer’s or some other dementia, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Deaths from Alzheimer’s have risen by 68% from 2000 to 2010.

Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease that gets worse as it develops. There is no cure for Alzheimer’s, although there are ways of slowing down its advance and helping patients with some of the symptoms. Alzheimer’s is also a terminal disease that is classified into several stages. A common framework includes 1. Pre-Dementia Stage. 2. Mild Alzheimer’s Stage. 3. Moderate Alzheimer’s Stage. 4. Severe Alzheimer’s Stage. Most patients take from 8 to 10 years to progress through all the stages. However, some may live for 20 years after neuron changes first occur. The main reason Alzheimer’s disease shortens people’s life expectancy is not usually the disease itself, but complications that result from it.

Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia strike all families — even those in the most glamorous corners of our world. In this series, we will look at the 40th U.S. President Ronald Reagan, Lady Volunteers basketball coach Pat Summitt, and country singer Glenn Campbell and their fights with Alzheimer’s and awareness efforts.

Part 1: Ronald Reagan

Ronald Wilson Reagan was born in Tampico, Illinois on February 6, 1911, to Jack Reagan, a salesman, and Nelle (Wilson). Reagan had one sibling, his older brother, Neil (1908–1996), who became an advertising executive.

Reagan was educated at Eureka College, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics and sociology. After graduating, he moved first to Iowa to work as a radio broadcaster and then, in 1937, to Los Angeles where he began a career as an actor, first in films and later in television. Some of his most notable films include Knute Rockne, All American (1940), Kings Row (1942), and Bedtime for Bonzo (1951). Reagan served as President of the Screen Actors Guild and later as a spokesman for General Electric (GE).

In 1938, Reagan co-starred in the film Brother Rat with actress Jane Wyman (1917–2007). They became engaged shortly after and got married on January 26, 1940. Together they had two biological children, Maureen (1941–2001) and Christine (who was born in 1947 but only lived one day), and adopted a third, Michael (born 1945). Following arguments about Reagan’s political ambitions, Wyman filed for divorce in 1948, citing a distraction due to her husband’s Screen Actors Guild union duties; the divorce was finalized in 1949. He is the only US president to have been divorced.

Reagan met actress Nancy Davis (born 1921) in 1949 after she contacted him in his capacity as president of the Screen Actors Guild to help her with issues regarding her name appearing on a communist blacklist in Hollywood (she had been mistaken for another Nancy Davis). She described their meeting by saying, “I don’t know if it was exactly love at first sight, but it was pretty close.” They were married on March 4, 1952. They had two children: Patti (born October 21, 1952) and Ron (born May 20, 1958).

Originally a member of the Democratic Party, his positions began shifting rightward in the 1950s, and he switched to the Republican Party in 1962. After delivering a rousing speech entitled “A Time for Choosing,” in support of Barry Goldwater’s presidential candidacy in 1964, he was persuaded to seek the California governorship, winning two years later and again in 1970. He was defeated in his run for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968 and in 1976, but won both the nomination and general election in 1980, defeating incumbent Jimmy Carter.

As president, Reagan implemented new political and economic initiatives. His policies, dubbed “Reaganomics”, advocated reducing tax rates to spur economic growth, controlling the money supply to reduce inflation, deregulation of the economy, and reducing government spending. In his first term he survived an assassination attempt, took a hard line against labor unions, announced a new War on Drugs, and ordered an invasion of Grenada. He was re-elected in a landslide in 1984. His second term was primarily marked by foreign matters, such as the ending of the Cold War, the 1986 bombing of Libya, and the revelation of the Iran–Contra affair. He supported anti-communist movements worldwide. Reagan negotiated with Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, culminating in the INF Treaty and the decrease of both countries’ nuclear arsenals.

Reagan left office in 1989. In August 1994, at the age of 83, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. In November he informed the nation through a handwritten letter, writing in part:

I have recently been told that I am one of the millions of Americans who will be afflicted with Alzheimer’s Disease… At the moment I feel just fine. I intend to live the remainder of the years God gives me on this earth doing the things I have always done… I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead. Thank you, my friends. May God always bless you.

After his diagnosis, letters of support from well-wishers poured into his California home, but there was also speculation over how long Reagan had demonstrated symptoms of mental degeneration. In her memoirs, former CBS White House correspondent Lesley Stahl recounts her final meeting with the president, in 1986: “Reagan didn’t seem to know who I was” But then, at the end, he regained his alertness.” As she described it, “I had come close to reporting that Reagan was senile.” In another instance, while meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, he repeatedly referred to Vice President Bush as “Prime Minister Bush.” Reagan’s doctors, however, note that he only began exhibiting overt symptoms of the illness in late 1992 or 1993, several years after he had left office. Other staff members, former aides, and friends said they saw no indication of Alzheimer’s while he was President.

In July 1989, Reagan suffered an episode of head trauma, five years prior to his diagnosis. After being thrown from a horse, a subdural hematoma was found and surgically treated later in the year. Nancy Reagan, citing what doctors told her, asserts that her husband’s 1989 fall hastened the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, although acute brain injury has not been conclusively proven to accelerate Alzheimer’s or dementia. Reagan’s one-time physician Dr. Daniel Ruge has said it is possible, but not certain, that the horse accident affected the course of Reagan’s memory.

As the years went on, the disease slowly destroyed Reagan’s mental capacity. He was only able to recognize a few people, including his wife, Nancy. He remained active, however; he took walks through parks near his home and on beaches, played golf regularly, and until 1999 he often went to his office in nearby Century City.

On January 13, 2001, Reagan suffered a fall at his Bel Air home resulting in a broken hip. The fracture was repaired the following day and the 89-year old Reagan returned home later that week, although he faced difficult physical therapy at home. On February 6, 2001, Reagan reached the age of 90, becoming the third former president to do so (the other two being John Adams and Herbert Hoover, with Gerald Ford later reaching 90). Reagan’s public appearances became much less frequent with the progression of the disease and, as a result, his family decided that he would live in quiet semi-isolation with his wife Nancy. Nancy Reagan told CNN’s Larry King in 2001 that very few visitors were allowed to see her husband because she felt that “Ronnie would want people to remember him as he was.”

On June 5, 2004, Ronald Reagan died of pneumonia, complicated by Alzheimer’s disease, at his home in Bel Air, California. A short time after his death, Nancy Reagan released a statement saying, “My family and I would like the world to know that President Ronald Reagan has died after 10 years of Alzheimer’s disease at 93 years of age.”

He was the first United States president to die in the 21st century, and his was the first state funeral in the United States since that of President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1973. His burial site is inscribed with the words he delivered at the opening of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library: “I know in my heart that man is good, that what is right will always eventually triumph and that there is purpose and worth to each and every life.”

Following her husband’s diagnosis and death, Nancy Reagan became a stem-cell research advocate, urging Congress and President George W. Bush to support federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, something Bush opposed. In 2009, she praised President Barack Obama for lifting restrictions on such research. Mrs. Reagan has said that she believes that it could lead to a cure for Alzheimer’s.

Although a great deal of research has been done and is currently being done on the possible causes of Alzheimer’s, experts are still not sure why the brain cells deteriorate. However, several factors including age, family history, gender (more women than men), head injuries, academic level, stress, chronic depression, obesity, high blood pressure and cholesterol and poorly controlled diabetes are known to be linked to a higher risk of developing the disease. Read our Everything Elder Law blog, as we are always pleased to report any updates on new research, discoveries, and treatments for Alzheimer’s as we find out about them.

Do you have a loved one who is suffering from Alzheimer’s? Persons with Alzheimer’s and their families face special legal and financial needs. At The Fairfax and Fredericksburg Elder Law Firms of Evan H. Farr, P.C. we are dedicated to easing the financial and emotional burden on those suffering from dementia and their loved ones. If you have a loved one who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, we can help you prepare for your future financial and long-term care needs. We help protect the family’s hard-earned assets while maintaining your loved one’s comfort, dignity, and quality of life by ensuring eligibility for critical government benefits. Call us today at 703-691-1888 to make an appointment for a complimentary consultation.

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.

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