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Reagan Says He Is in Early Stages of Alzheimer’s

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In a poignant, hand-penned letter to the American public, former President Ronald Reagan disclosed Saturday that he is suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

“I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life,” Reagan, 83, wrote to “my fellow Americans.”

Saying that at the moment he feels “just fine,” Reagan explained that he was going public with his diagnosis to promote broader awareness of the disease--a progressive, irreversible neurological disorder that kills more adults in the United States than any ailment except heart disease, cancer or strokes.

In an accompanying statement released by his Los Angeles office, Reagan’s five personal physicians said the condition was discovered during routine medical testing.

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“Over the past 12 months we began to notice from President Reagan’s test results symptoms indicating the possibility of early stage Alzheimer’s disease,” the doctors wrote. “Additional testing and an extensive observation over the past few weeks have led us to conclude that President Reagan is entering the early stages of this disease.”

In the two-page letter, Reagan, who lives in Bel-Air, maintained his characteristic cheerfulness.

“I intend to live the remainder of the years God gives me on this earth doing the things I have always done,” he said. “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.”

Friends reacted with sober acceptance, some acknowledging that Reagan had seemed to be losing mental acuity.

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Catherine Busch, spokeswoman for Reagan, said Saturday afternoon that the former President was with his wife at an undisclosed California location outside Los Angeles. Busch declined further comment, saying, “The letter speaks for itself.”

The nation’s oldest President, Reagan was treated for several medical problems during his two terms in the White House. He underwent surgery for a prostate gland condition and a colon cancer lesion during his second term and was wounded in an assassination attempt shortly after he took office in 1981.

A perpetual optimist, Reagan told a reporter after his successful colon surgery: “I didn’t have cancer. I had something inside of me that had cancer in it and it was removed.”

In his letter--so informal that it included a scratched-out phrase--Reagan wrote: “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.

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“So now, we feel it is important to share it with you,” Reagan continued. “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.”

He added: “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.”

Around the country, Reagan’s friends, political allies and foes expressed sadness at the news, as well as admiration for the manner in which the former California governor and Hollywood actor was handling it.

“Typical Gipper,” former Reagan speech writer Ken Khachigian said affectionately when Reagan’s letter was read to him.

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Khachigian said he had not seen Reagan for a couple of years but had heard reports “that he was somewhat less engaged. A lot of us who had been close to him thought that was just the normal aging process.

“But obviously this gives a more understandable medical explanation of why he was slowing down a bit,” added Khachigian, an attorney and political consultant. "(It was) courageous of him as usual to come out with something like this. And I’m sure that over the next few years we’ll see that he’ll continue to have a sunny disposition, that he’ll have his sunny, optimistic view of life.”

In Oakland, President Clinton spoke of Reagan in his remarks to several thousand Democratic activists Saturday afternoon.

“I’m going to ask you to do something we normally wouldn’t do at a Democratic rally,” Clinton said, asking the boisterous group to remain silent while he made an announcement. A low murmur of dismay could be heard rippling through the crowd as he told them of Reagan’s condition.

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“It touched my heart,” Clinton said of the news.

He went on to recount a story of having met with Reagan not long after Clinton’s election as President. The two conversed about the job, and at one point, Clinton said, Reagan looked at him and said, “You know, I forgot what I was talking about, and it really makes me mad.”

He and Reagan “disagreed on a lot of things,” Clinton said, but he praised the former President for his decency. “He always fought with a sense of optimism and spirit,” Clinton said.

He added that Reagan had been “willing to put partisanship aside” and help him on issues such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Brady Bill limiting handgun sales, which was named after Reagan’s former press secretary, James Brady. “I want everyone of you in this room now to give Ronald Reagan a hand and wish him Godspeed,” Clinton said. The audience applauded.

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In Houston, former President George Bush released a statement saluting Reagan “for his courage and (for) sharing this private matter with the American people. Barbara and I are thinking of our good friends, Ron and Nancy, and we wish them well.” After the announcement was made, former Reagan staff members began phoning one another.

“We were all caught off guard here,” said Sheila Tate, who was Nancy Reagan’s press secretary. “We’re calling each other and feeling sad for him, and for her.”

Tate said a friend saw the news on CNN and contacted her at her McLean, Va., home. Tate immediately turned on her television.

“I saw the handwritten letter, which I thought was incredibly moving and quintessentially Ronald Reagan,” said Tate. In dealing with the disease, she said, Reagan thought about how he could help other people. “It’s typical of how he’s approached his whole life.”

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During his presidency, Reagan’s age and health periodically became issues, particularly when he seemed unsure or forgetful. He would shrug off the concerns with jokes and made a point of being photographed while riding horseback on vacation.

He continued to make public statements and appearances after leaving office six years ago. Last spring he declared himself “pretty steamed” over Iran-Contra figure Oliver L. North’s comments that Reagan had approved North’s role in the illegal arms deal. But in recent years he had assumed a lower profile, attending fewer events and declining interviews. He appeared in failing health at last spring’s funeral of former President Richard Nixon.

Reagan’s physicians--including Dr. Leslie Weiner of USC and Dr. James R. Blake of St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica--said that although Reagan’s health is otherwise good, “it is expected that as the years go on it will begin to deteriorate.”

“Unfortunately, at this time, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease and no effective treatment exists that arrests its progression,” the doctors noted, adding that they would have no further comment about Reagan’s condition.

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Reagan’s mother, Nelle, who died at age 77, also apparently suffered from Alzheimer’s.

Dr. Jeffrey L. Cummings, director of the UCLA Alzheimer’s Disease Center, said that judging from the coherence of Reagan’s letter, he appears to be in the early stages of the disease.

Cummings said he expected that the announcement would focus attention on Alzheimer’s disease as news of Earvin (Magic) Johnson’s illness in 1991 did on AIDS.

About 4 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, which is characterized by a progressive loss of mental function, including memory and language. About 100,000 people die of the disease each year.

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As many as 50% of those over 85 are thought to have Alzheimer’s, although it can also strike people in their 40s or 50s.

The average time from diagnosis to death is generally seven to 10 years, although some may die sooner and some may live as long as 20 years.

The disease has three phases.

During the first stage, a patient notices some forgetfulness, which can create anxiety or depression. Then, in the second stage, the forgetfulness intensifies into severe memory loss, particularly short-term memory. The third stage entails severe confusion and disorientation, with some patients experiencing hallucinations and paranoid delusions. They may become childlike, violent or demanding. At this point, they are often unable to take care of themselves, needing full-time caretakers or placement in a nursing home.

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Alzheimer’s can be hard to diagnose. Similar symptoms can be caused by a variety of physical diseases, including a tumor, strokes, hypothyroidism, pernicious anemia or Vitamin B-12 deficiencies.

The disorder’s most distinguishing characteristic is the presence of rock-hard plaques and tangles in the brain, through which a definitive diagnosis can be made after death.

Times staff writer David Lauter and wire services contributed to this story.

Reagan’s Letter

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Text of letter written by former President Ronald Reagan announcing he has Alzheimer’s disease:

“My Fellow Americans,

“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.

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“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 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.

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“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.

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“Sincerely, Ronald Reagan.”


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