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Did President Reagan suffer from Alzheimer’s disease while in office?

ddn has written countless stories about drug discovery and research efforts in the critical area of Alzheimer’s disease, and one area that researchers, clinics and drug manufacturers seem to be focusing on lately is pinpointing the onset of the debilitating disease. For example, in October, we reported on efforts by the Alzheimer’s Prevention Initiative (API) to test potential Alzheimer’s treatments and identify new biomarkers that could lead to earlier and more accurate diagnoses for Alzheimer’s patients. Researchers at the API told us that although there are many promising treatments being studied in Alzheimer’s symptomatic patients, by the time most people begin to show symptoms of the disease, it has already ravaged the brain, rendering these treatments ineffective.

This cold, hard reality has been making headlines lately with the release of a new book, “My Father at 100: A Memoir,” a close-up account of the life of President Ronald Reagan as seen through the eyes of his son, Ron Reagan. The book, which came out a few weeks shy of what would have been the former president’s 100th birthday on Feb. 6, is “an exploration of his character,” Ron Reagan says, but addresses the ongoing question of whether his father suffered with Alzheimer’s while in office.

President Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in August 1994 at the age of 83, and he informed the nation about his diagnosis in a handwritten letter later that year. Although President Reagan’s White House doctors said they saw no evidence of Alzheimer’s while he was president, there was during his time in office widespread speculation that he demonstrated symptoms of mental degeneration. For example, former CBS White House correspondent Lesley Stahl wrote in her own memoir that at her final meeting with President Reagan in 1986, “Reagan didn’t seem to know who I was.” The president regained his alertness at the end of the meeting, Stahl wrote, adding, “I had come that close to reporting that Reagan was senile.”

Ron Reagan writes that that he noticed evidence of dementia as early as President Reagan’s first term. “I felt the first shivers of concern” during the 1984 reelection campaign, he writes, “that something beyond mellowing was affecting my father. My heart sank as he floundered his way through his responses. He looked tired and bewildered.” By 1986, President Reagan “had been alarmed to discover, while flying over the familiar canyons north of Los Angeles, that he could no longer summon their names,” his son writes.

Still, as he hits the press junket, Ron Reagan is careful to say that we cannot know for certain whether President Reagan exhibited signs of Alzheimer’s during his presidency. He also asserts that he believes if Reagan had gotten the diagnosis during his two terms, he would have stepped down.

In this video with TV personality Joy Behar, Ron Reagan clarifies his characterization of his father’s illness in his book.

“One can deduce that the disease must have been present, but I say specifically that I saw no dementia-like signs when he was in office,” he tells Behar. “Let’s recall that this was the oldest president ever elected (President Reagan was in his 70s). By the time he’s reaching his mid-70s, he’s losing his hearing, he’s been shot and nearly killed—which will take a little of the wind out of your sails—and of course I am worried about him all the time, because it’s a very tough job with a lot of stress. Every once in a while I would see—almost like when you are watching television, and it momentarily goes out of focus and snaps back. You think, ‘what did I just see?’ But I didn’t know what it was, I just knew I was concerned about him for all sorts of reasons. In retrospect, it’s possible that some of those early things were signs of Alzheimer’s, but I don’t know, and I can’t really make that claim.”

Some of the controversy, Ron Reagan tells Behar, may stem from “the confusion between Alzheimer’s the disease and dementia, which is a symptom of the disease—which usually arrives in the later stages.”

“Knowing what we know now about Alzheimer’s, that it’s a process that extends for years or even decades before symptoms arise, it’s kind of an academic question as to whether the disease was present when my father had” the debilitating disease, Ron Reagan says in this interview.

I think many of the researchers who read our publication would agree. What do you all think of Ron Reagan’s assertions? How does this “academic question” impact efforts to treat, manage or even reverse damage caused by Alzheimer’s?

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January 27, 2011 - Posted by | Academia & Non-Profit, Corporate, Labwork & Science | , , , , , , , , ,

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