One of Ronald Reagan’s greatest legacies is one he may not have been fully aware that he created: focusing attention on the disease that took his life, a researcher said on Sunday.
“We’re mourning the loss of an extraordinary man, a man who finished the second term of his presidency at the age of 77, but who still was not able to conquer this devastating disease,” said Dr. Gary Small, an expert on Alzheimer’s disease and the author of two books on the subject.
People are now receiving earlier diagnoses and better treatments for the incurable brain-wasting disease partly because Reagan supported Alzheimer’s research as president and because he went public with his diagnosis in 1994, increasing awareness of the need for more research, Small said.
“What his illness has done is brought the world’s attention to the necessity for accelerated research. While a cure is still far away, we now have the technology to detect, and ... at least delay, onset, and that to me is very close to a cure that is foreseeable within the next decade,” Small said.
Reagan, 93, died on Saturday after a decade-long battle with the disease.
During that time, his health slowly deteriorated. Eventually, he did not even recognize his devoted wife, former first lady Nancy Reagan.
But while he was able, the former president was an advocate for Alzheimer’s research.
SIGNIFICANT INCREASE IN FEDERAL FUNDING
In 1995, the Reagans joined with the Alzheimer’s Association to create the Ronald and Nancy Reagan Research Institute, dedicated to accelerating the progress in Alzheimer research, said Kathryn Kane, a senior vice president with the Alzheimer’s Association. Today the institute awards $15 million in research grants each year.
“The two greatest contributions the Reagans made in Alzheimer’s was hugely raising public awareness of the disease and making it okay to talk about it. It’s a disease where there’s a lot of denial and shame attached to it. Ronald Reagan brought it out of the closet,” she said.
As her husband declined, Nancy Reagan spearheaded public awareness campaigns and described what it was like to be a caretaker for an Alzheimer’s patient, which she referred to as “the long goodbye.” She publicly advocated for stem cell research as a way to help others with the disease.
Maureen Reagan, the former president’s daughter with actress Jane Wyman, served on the Alzheimer’s Association’s national board, organized fundraisers and asked Congress for more funding before she died in 2001.
The Reagans’ efforts resulted in a huge increase in federal funding, from $22 million annually in the early 1980s to $680 million per year today.
Doctors now are better able to diagnose the disease early, and provide patients with drugs and other measures to delay its progression.
Research has shown that various lifestyle choices can stave off the progression of Alzheimer’s, just as they can slow cardiovascular disease and the onset of diabetes, said Small, whose new book, “The Memory Prescription,” outlines a program for improving brain health.
One-third of the risk for Alzheimer’s comes from a person’s genetic makeup, Small said. “That means two-thirds has to do with nongenetic factors. Lifestyle choices make a huge difference.”
Sticking to a diet that keeps blood sugar levels in check can help keep the brain healthy, he said. Maintaining a normal body weight, exercising, reducing stress and performing brain-stimulating tasks can also help protect the brain from deterioration, Small said.
Revision date: June 14, 2011
Last revised: by Dave R. Roger, M.D.