Ronald Reagan: A Physical Sign of 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 MORE

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 SEE BELOW . 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.

This photograph shows an example of Reagan being less than fully attentive to his appearance -- uncharacteristic for him:

Ronald and Nancy Reagan, as well as Newport News Shipbuilding Chairman and CEO Bill Fricks stand in front of the model of the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76).

In the photo, the CEO's necktie peeks out, too, but his coat is being rumpled and displaced by having his arm around Mrs. Reagan.

This US Navy photograph (by Bernard A. Cardali) was originally at this now-defunct address. As of May 30, 2008, the full-resolution image is available from Wikipedia.

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

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