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Last Updated: Saturday, 5 June, 2004, 21:17 GMT 22:17 UK
Reagan: Alzheimer's disease champion

Ronald and Nancy Reagan
Ronald and Nancy Reagan: Praised by Alzheimer's groups

Ronald Reagan's candour in openly admitting that he had Alzheimer's disease has done much to promote greater awareness of a devastating condition.

Mr Reagan revealed he was suffering from the disease - a form of dementia - in November 1994.

It is thought that he may have suffered mild symptoms while still in office. His much publicised memory lapses are a characteristic sign of the early onset of a disease that often takes years to become apparent.

In 1995, Mr Reagan set up the Ronald and Nancy Research Fund together with his wife. The aim was to raise $100m for research into Alzheimer's disease.

Since then, the fund has helped to finance research into a possible genetic basis for the disease, and into how treatments can be provided in an ethical fashion.

Iris Murdoch
Novelist Iris Murdoch was a fellow sufferer

It is thought likely that Mr Reagan will bequeath part of his personal fortune to Alzheimer's causes.

Harry Cayton, former chief executive of the UK Alzheimer's Disease Society, which has worked closely with the Reagan fund, paid tribute to the former president's courage in telling the world about his disease.

"Ronald Reagan's openness has done a great deal to raise the profile of Alzheimer's disease," he said.

"It is probably the single most important event in terms of raising public awareness.

"It seemed to me to be a fantastically courageous thing for a man who was known as the great communicator to do.

"There is no doubt that whatever people thought about him as a politician he became a champion for people with Alzheimer's disease and their carers throughout the world.

Charlton Heston
Charlton Heston has recently announced his illness

"For people to see a man who was so powerful and such a great communicator reduced to a shambling and uncertain figure really brought home to people how devastating this disease is."

Mr Cayton said Mr Reagan had also paved the way for other celebrities, such as the novelist Iris Murdoch and Charlton Heston, to admit that they had Alzheimer's.

"There was no doubt that Mr Reagan was a kind of focus of attention. He enabled us to take the whole debate forward in a way that would not have otherwise have been possible - he speeded things up fantastically."

The most common cause of dementia, Alzheimer's disease begins typically with lapses of memory, difficulty in finding the right words for everyday objects or mood swings.

Mild symptoms may be a natural effect of ageing, but in Alzheimer's disease a pattern of problems emerges over six months or more.

As it progresses, the person may:

  • routinely forget recent events, appointments, names and faces
  • have difficulty in understanding what is being said
  • become confused
  • become distant, irritable or apathetic
  • suffer mood swings

In advanced cases people may also:

  • adopt unsettling behaviour, like getting up in the middle of the night, or wandering off from their home and becoming lost
  • lose their inhibitions and sense of suitable behaviour, undressing in public or making inappropriate sexual advances
  • finally, the personality disintegrates and the person becomes totally dependent or bed-bound
  • relatives have described this experience as like living with a stranger

The cause of Alzheimer's is unknown, although it has been linked to a specific gene.

Ronald Reagan
Memory loss as president may have heralded Reagan's illness

The symptoms are caused by damage to the brain's cells and nerves, and by a disruption to the chemicals that transmit instructions around the brain.

Below the age of 65, dementia affects one person in 1,000, over the age of 65 it affects four to five in 100.

There is no cure for Alzheimer's disease and none is likely in the near future, but drugs are being developed which seek to slow down the rate of mental decline.

More information about Alzheimer's disease can be obtained from the Alzheimer's Disease Society, Gordon House, 10 Greencoat Place, London SW1P 1PH. Telephone: 0845 3000336.

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