How Nancy Reagan Changed the Way Americans View Alzheimer’s

Today Alzheimer’s affects five million Americans, but in the early 1990s no one really knew much about the disease; That is until former President Ronald Reagan was diagnosed with it.

“I am one of the millions of Americans who will be afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease,” President Regan said in a letter to the American people in 1994. “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.”

They decided to be public about it. And, Nancy went to war advocating for the disease, just like she did with breast cancer in late 1980s when her left breast was removed.

“What she did was come out and label the disease. This is Alzheimer’s and Ronald Reagan has Alzheimer’s and it’s a disease. And, it really hit home because he was such a public figure and a leader. It really opened up people’s eyes for the very first time that Alzheimer’s was a disease,” Dr. Maria Carrillo, chief science officer for the Alzheimer’s Association tells

Carrillo says at that time most people considered the disease a normal part of aging and didn’t realize it could be treated.

“She was a huge asset for the field. It was the real beginning to the research part of the disease,” she adds. “There were a lot of research centers that started in the ‘90s that are still around today that are funded by the federal government.”

In 1995, she and her husband – Nancy being the driving force behind it – established the Ronald and Nancy Reagan Research Institute, affiliated with the Alzheimer’s Association.

Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, which is a general term for memory loss that worsens over time. In its early stages, memory loss is mild, but with late-stage Alzheimer’s individuals lose the ability to carry on a conversation and respond to their environment. It’s the sixth leading cause of death in the United States according to the Alzheimer's Association.

Today, the government dedicates over $1 billion a year to Alzheimer’s research, with an additional $350 million allocated this past year.

“We’re moving in the right direction but I know that we’re not done yet. We need at least two billion dollars to reach the federal government’s own goal with their national plan to address the disease, signed by President Obama in 2011 to beat this disease by 2025,” says Carrillo.

President Reagan lost his battle with Alzheimer’s on June 5th, 2004, nearly 10 years after being diagnosed. He wrote about the heavy burden his having the disease placed on Nancy in his letter.

“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.”

Carrillo adds that the biggest sufferers of this disease aren’t the ones who are diagnosed with it, but rather the 15 million caretakers that work with Alzheimer’s patients.

Nancy stood by her husband’s side throughout his battle and referred to the disease as “a truly long, long goodbye.” And after nearly 12 years part, Nancy is set to be buried next to her husband at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.