My fellow Americans, I have recently been told that I am one of the millions of Americans who will be inflicted by Alzheimer’s disease …
Many of us recognize those opening words penned by President Ronald Reagan back in November of 1994, when he so bravely went public with his diagnosis. His poignant letter to the world signaling what he called the “journey into the sunset of my life” was meant to dispel the stigma of dementia, comfort those families affected, and ramp up a sense of urgency around research for a cure. Not only did the letter itself fulfill that purpose; but other significant steps taken by Reagan and his family had tremendous impacts on the greater Alzheimer’s community – namely around research and awareness – that are still being felt decades later.
First, it’s important to point out the attention that Reagan brought to Alzheimer’s well before he was diagnosed. What’s often lost in his subsequent struggle with the illness is the fact that Reagan spoke early and often about the disease, issuing eight presidential statements on Alzheimer’s while he was in office. In 1982, he issued a proclamation creating Alzheimer’s Awareness Week, and in 1988 served as Honorary Chairman of the Rita Hayworth Gala for Alzheimer’s Research.
Once he himself was diagnosed and went public, Reagan and wife Nancy launched the Ronald and Nancy Reagan Research Institute at the Alzheimer’s Association, raising tens of millions of dollars in research money. Following this important step, it was Nancy herself who went on to shine a powerful spotlight on the critical need for funding towards Alzheimer’s research. “When I came into the field, very little research resources were being put into Alzheimer’s disease,” Dr. Donna Wilcock stated recently, a scientist who has worked in the field almost 20 years. “The awareness of the disease and the push to provide significant resources for research and care really started with (Nancy) Reagan.”
In particular, the former First Lady had a significant impact on the role of stem cells in dementia research, which was not exactly an easy field for her to wade into back in the early 2000s. Embryonic stem cells were a lightening rod issue then as they are now, particularly among Republicans, which meant she was going up against not only former colleagues of her husband’s but also many dear friends. Nonetheless she almost singularly used her public platform to promote funding for stem cell research, notably writing a personal appeal to President George W. Bush that resulted in his backing off a threatened ban on stem cell funding back in 2001.
Nancy Reagan’s advocacy continued throughout the rest of her public life, resulting in many millions of dollars earmarked for Alzheimer’s research. The legacy that she and her husband have left in the Alzheimer’s community is indisputable, and commonly referred to as “the Reagan effect”.
For more information on the latest in Alzheimer’s research, head to the Alzheimer’s Association.