Celebrities With Alzheimers: US President Ronald Reagan

New hope springs up for Alzheimer’s as scientists unlock a bit of how our brains encode memories

Like 30 million mostly elderly people in the world, former United States President Ronald Reagan suffered dementia from Alzheimer’s disease. But now scientists have unlocked — at least in part — how the brain encodes memories, leading to hopes that a cure for the memory and learning loss brought by the neurodegenerative disease may soon be found.

At 69, he was the oldest to enter the White House. But the former film star who became the 40th president of the United States radiated a youthful optimism rooted in the traditional virtues of a departed pre-World War II era.

To a nation wounded by Watergate, Vietnam and the taking of hostages in Iran, former President Ronald Reagan held out the promise that America would “stand tall” again. And, in his first term, he did manage to restore America’s faith in itself and in the presidency.

But late in 1986, halfway through his second term, his government plunged into turmoil when his subordinates sold arms to Iran as ransom for hostages in Lebanon and diverted profits to the rebels fighting the Marxist Sandinistas then governing Nicaragua. The Iran Contra affair had been “characterized by pervasive dishonesty and secrecy,” reported the joint Congressional investigating committee.

Despite that, the Republican president remained tremendously popular, capping his two terms with a new relationship with the Soviet Union under the leadership of Mikhail S. Gorbachev, paved by a nuclear arms agreement with the Soviets that reduced — for the first time — the nuclear arsenals of both countries.

In 1994, Mr. Reagan he again touched the hearts of Americans when he in a handwritten letter that he had Alzheimer’s disease. “I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life,” he wrote. “I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.”

He died in 2004 at age 93, after spending his final years in seclusion, coping with the mental debilitation of Alzheimer’s disease.

Spurred by her husband’s suffering, former first lady Nancy Reagan turned into a strong advocate for embryonic stem-cell research — putting her in conflict with her fellow Republicans. Scientists believe that stem-cell research could lead to treatments for Alzheimer’s and other diseases, but it remains controversial because it involves the destruction of human embryos.

Alzheimer’s: a terrible disease
About 5.4 million Americans — and 30 million people across the world — suffer from Alzheimer’s, a neurodegenerative disease.

Worse, the disease is nearly impossible to diagnose before symptoms develop — physical changes in the brain are difficult to detect before clinical symptoms appear.

Striving to understand the causes of Alzheimer’s, scientists have probed blood samples of patients, animals as varied as fruit flies and fish — and even brain biopsies of patients who died. Still, a drug to cure it or change its course also remains elusive.

But Alzheimer’s is a terrible disease. A progressive brain disorder that often strikes late in life, sufferers slowly but irreversibly lose their memory, language skills and perception of time and space. Eventually, they can’t even take care of themselves.

The disease takes a devastating toll on both patients and those who love and care for them. Sufferers often feel great frustration and fear as they struggle with everyday tasks and slowly lose their independence. Caregivers tend to get burned out; friends and family are hurt to witness how the disease takes their loved one from them bit by bit.

Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, and one of the main effects of dementia is that it damages the brain’s memory and learning function. Thus, understanding how memories are encoded is key to developing new treatments for the disease — and perhaps, even preventing it.