Ronald Reagan is Diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease

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.”

— Ronald Reagan

Now, nearly six years after he left the White House, after serving two terms as President, Mr. Reagan has said he has Alzheimer's disease. A statement from his doctors said he was "entering the early stages of this disease." It is characterized by progressive mental and physical deterioration, which can occur swiftly or over a period of years.

The 83-year-old Mr. Reagan disclosed the diagnosis through his office in Los Angeles last Saturday with the same openness he displayed in discussing a variety of other ailments he suffered as Governor of California and as President, including prostate enlargement and colon cancer.

In August 1994, at the age of 83, Ronald Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, an incurable neurological disorder which ultimately causes brain cells to die. In November he informed the nation via a hand-written 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. Former CBS White House correspondent Lesley Stahl recalls an interview when he was president where "a vacant Reagan barely seemed to realize anyone else was in the room," and that before he "reemerged into alertness" she recalls that "I had come that close to reporting that Reagan was senile." But Dr. Lawrence K. Altman, a physician employed as a reporter for the New York Times, noted that "the line between mere forgetfulness and the beginning of Alzheimer's can be fuzzy" and all four of Reagan's White House doctors said that they saw no evidence of Alzheimer's while he was president. Dr. John E. Hutton, Reagan's primary physician from 1984 to 1989, said the president "absolutely" did not "show any signs of dementia or Alzheimer's." Reagan did experience occasional memory lapses, though, especially with names. Once, 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. His former Chief of Staff James Baker considered "ludicrous" the idea of Reagan sleeping during cabinet meetings. Other staff members, former aides, and friends said they saw no indication of Alzheimer's while he was President.

Complicating the picture, Reagan suffered an episode of head trauma in July 1989, five years prior to his diagnosis. After being thrown from a horse in Mexico, a subdural hematoma was found and surgically treated later in the year. Nancy Reagan asserts that her husband's 1989 fall hastened the onset of Alzheimer's disease, citing what doctors told her, although head trauma has not been conclusively proven to accelerate Alzheimer's. 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.