Known as “the Great Communicator,” the nation’s 40th president - who died on June 5, 2004 at the age of 93 following a decade-long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease - also raised awareness of a number of health issues through personal experience.
Fit even in his youth, Ronald Reagan often proudly recalled the seven summers he spent as a lifeguard - beginning at age 15 - at Lowell Park in his hometown of Dixon, Illinois. He was credited with saving 77 lives.
The first health crisis of his presidency came on March 30, 1981, when he was shot during an assassination attempt by John W. Hinckley Jr. outside of the Hilton Hotel in Washington. White House Press Secretary James Brady and two others also were seriously wounded during the attack.
But Reagan, who received a lung injury when he was shot in the left side, recovered relatively quickly. He returned to the White House after less than a month at George Washington University Hospital. Even Reagan thought his rate of recovery was astonishing, especially when he compared it to a 1945 bout with pneumonia that caused him to lose 17 pounds.
Still, the shooting injury caused him “paralyzing pain,” the then-70-year-old president said in April 1981.
Two years later, Reagan began wearing a hearing aid to assist him with right ear hearing loss that was attributed to the firing of a revolver too close to his ear on a movie set 44 years previously.
News surrounding the condition, as well as the president’s $1,000 custom-made hearing device, put a national spotlight on hearing loss.
After his election to a second term, Reagan helped to increase attention on colorectal health when polyps were found in his colon in the summer of 1985. The polyps were removed at Bethesda Naval Medical Center in Maryland, and one was found to be cancerous.
The diagnosis stimulated national debate on the advisability of regular colorectal screening tests and increased public vigilance concerning the disease for some time.
Just weeks later, public notice shifted to skin cancer when Reagan visited the Bethesda hospital again to have a lesion removed from his nose. The lesion was determined to be a basal cell carcinoma, the most common and easily treated form of the disease.
Once more, Reagan’s affliction focused attention on a growing problem - skin cancer related to sun exposure.
“We found through our open disclosures, we were able to raise public awareness,” Reagan later wrote. “We were happy that, as a result, many more people underwent testing, (and were able to) return to normal, healthy lives.”
Again, the president’s recovery was swift, and the trend continued into the next year, when more polyps were discovered in his colon.
These polyps were determined to be benign, signaling recovery from yet another health crisis.
After leaving office in 1989, occasional health problems cropped up, including surgeries to eliminate scar tissue caused by the 1985 removal of colon polyps and fluid buildup in the brain caused by a fall from a horse while vacationing in Mexico. Future Russian President Boris Yeltsin visited Reagan at St. Mary’s Hospital in Rochester, Minnesota, after the latter surgery.
In 1990, Reagan postponed a planned trip to Europe following the discovery of more intestinal scar tissue. And in 1995, another skin cancer lesion - again basal cell carcinoma - was removed from his neck.
Reagan was hospitalized in January 2001 at St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, after falling at home and breaking his right hip. He had surgery the following day.
But it was the 1994 disclosure that Reagan was suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease that was the greatest blow.
“Unfortunately, at this time there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease and no effective treatment exists that can arrest its progression,” Dr. Oliver Beahrs of the Mayo Clinic wrote at the time, along with three other Reagan personal physicians. “We applaud President Reagan for the courage he has demonstrated by sharing this personal information with the American people.”
As with the Reagans’ other health problems, including Mrs. Reagan’s successful treatment for breast cancer, the former first family looked at the diagnosis as a chance to increase the disease’s public profile.
“In opening our hearts, we hope this might promote greater awareness of this condition,” Reagan wrote in a November 1994 letter to the American people. “Perhaps it will encourage a clearer understanding of the individuals and families who are affected by it.”
As the years progressed, Reagan gradually slipped from public view, although Mrs. Reagan continued to make appearances on his behalf. Reagan’s older daughter, Maureen, became a staunch advocate for Alzheimer’s research, and the family - often fractious in the past - drew together for strength and support.
Reagan’s older daughter, Maureen, became a staunch advocate for Alzheimer’s research. She died in 2001 of malignant melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.
The rest of the family - often fractious in the past - drew together for strength and support in the years after Reagan’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
“I only wish there was some way I could spare Nancy from this painful experience,” Reagan wrote in 1994. “When the time comes, I am confident that, with your help, she will face it with faith and courage.”
Shortly before her husband’s death, Nancy Reagan called for increased funding for stem-cell research. Although controversial, stem-cell research has shown promise as a potential treatment for Alzheimer’s and other conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease.
“Now science has presented us with a hope called stem cell research, which may provide our scientists with many answers that have for so long been beyond our grasp,” Reagan told an audience in Los Angeles.
And as Reagan faced the greatest struggle of his life, the radio announcer, actor, politician and perhaps the most popular U.S. president of the late 20th century, showed his characteristic humility and sense of hope.
“Let me thank you, the American people, for giving me the great honor of allowing me to serve as your president,” he wrote. “When the Lord calls me home, whenever that may be, I will leave with the greatest love for this country of ours, and eternal optimism for its future.”
Revision date: June 22, 2011
Last revised: by Dave R. Roger, M.D.