Ronald Reagan: His letter about Alzheimer disease

Alzheimer disease
At one time Reagan "possessed a remarkable memory that his brother described as photographic" 1. Soon after graduating from college, he auditioned for a sports announcer job by "re-creating the fourth quarter of a Eureka College football game from memory" 1. (Reagan had played in the game.) As an actor, "much of Reagan's early career was spent in the B-film division, where his knack for quick memorization made him a valuable asset. Producers of B-films, as Reagan often put it, 'didn't want them good, they wanted them Thursday'" 1.

By contrast, as President, in his 70s, "He forgot the names of Cabinet officers, trusted aides and visiting dignitaries. In Brazil, he toasted the people of Bolivia" 1. A friend tells Dr. Zebra of a film clip in which Reagan, as President, is asked a question, only to look completely blank until the camera audio picks up his wife Nancy whispering an evasive answer ("We're doing all that we can") into Reagan's ear, which he then speaks.

In 1993 Reagan became increasingly forgetful. Alzheimer disease was diagnosed during his annual visit to the Mayo Clinic in 1994. His condition was announced to the public in a carefully worded letter to the American people on Nov. 5, 1994 1 SEE BELOW

According to Gerald Ford, Reagan was stll able to write a letter the week of the public announcement, but by 1995 he did not recognize people and a 24-hour nurse for him was being sought 2a. Ford also said that he visited Reagan in Century City (Reagan's office) in January 1999, but Reagan did not recognize him at all, despite Ford's best efforts 2b. Comment: The 1995 and 1999 accounts seem to be at odds over the progression of the disease.

There is an interesting photograph of Reagan, taken in 1996, that shows a visible sign of his Alzheimer disease MORE . He is shown standing with a model of the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan, a ship named in his honor, along with his wife and the CEO of the company building the ship. Reagan's necktie peeks out below the button of his suit coat. Reagan was extremely careful with his appearance all his life -- as an actor and as a President who wore $1000 suits -- so this tiny slip is actually significant, as a sign of inattention caused by his disease. (For a case in which this sign was actually responsible for the diagnosis of Alzheimer disease in a business executive, see 3a.)

Was Reagan symptomatic while in office? There was speculation about his mental function as early as 1987, just after he underwent his third major operation while in office (prostate). In response, Reagan held a press conference on March 19, 1987 in which he performed extremely well in front of a hostile press 4a.

Gerald Ford visited Reagan when the disease was well advanced. "He barely recognized me. . . I tried to bring up things that would refresh his memory, but he was not the Ronald Reagan that I [had known]" 2c.

Below is the text of Reagan's letter to the American people concerning his diagnosis of Alzheimer disease 5:
I have recently been told that I am one of the millions of Americans who will be afflicted with Alzheimer's disease.

Upon learning this news, Nancy and I had to decide whether as private citizens we would keep this a private matter or whether we would make this news known in a public way.

In the past, Nancy suffered from breast cancer and I had my cancer surgeries. We found through our open disclosures we were able to raise public awareness. We were happy that as a result many more people underwent testing.

They were treated in early stages and we were able to return to normal, healthy lives.

So now, we feel it is important to share it with you. In opening our hearts, we hope this might promote greater awareness of this condition. Perhaps it will encourage a clearer understanding of the individuals and families who are affected by it.

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 will continue to share life's journey with my beloved Nancy and my family. I plan to enjoy the great outdoors and stay in touch with my friends and supporters.

Unfortunately, as Alzheimer's disease progresses, the family often bears a heavy burden. I only wish there was some way I could spare Nancy from this painful experience. When the time comes, I am confident that with your help she will face it with faith and courage.

In closing let me thank you, the American people, for giving me the great honor of allowing me to serve as your president. 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.

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.

Sincerely, Ronald Reagan

Since medical science cannot predict who will develop Alzheimer disease in the future, the only explanation for the use of the future tense in the first sentence is to soften the fact that Reagan was diagnosed as already having the disease. This softening was done, no doubt, to help deflect the question of whether Reagan had the disease while in office.
Cited Sources
  1. Cannon, Lou. Actor, Governor, President, Icon. Washington Post. 6 June 2004, page A1.   Available on the web at:
  2. DeFrank, Thomas M. Write It When I'm Gone: Remarkable Off-the-Record Conversations with Gerald R. Ford. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2007.
    a  p.118  b  p.119  c  p.108
  3. Alvarez, Walter C. Nervousness Indigestion and Pain. New York: Paul B. Hoeber, 1943.
    a  pp.100-101
  4. MacMahon, Edward B. and Curry, Leonard. Medical Cover-Ups in the White House. Washington, DC: Farragut, 1987.
    a  p.3
  5. Available on the web:

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