In what is considered his farewell address to the American people, former President Ronald Reagan penned a November 5, 1994, letter announcing his recently diagnosed Alzheimer’s disease, the irreversible neurological condition that is the most frequent form of dementia. With brave honesty, the 40th President of the United States explained how he and former first lady Nancy Reagan decided to “make this news known in a public way … In opening our hearts, we hope this might promote greater awareness of this condition. I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life.”
During the athletic, upbeat “Gipper’s” sunset journey, his cognitive and physical health slowly faded. Well-known on the world stage negotiating with political powers, the “Great Communicator” would now face the walled-in world that Alzheimer’s demanded of his aging body. Reagan died of Alzheimer’s-related pneumonia at age 93. Few of those attending or watching his graveside service via television will forget the first lady’s sobbing, her exhausted, frail body clinging to her beloved Ronnie’s casket. As devoted spouse and dedicated caregiver, Nancy rarely left Ronald’s side during his 10-year battle with the irreparable brain disorder.
Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher pre-recorded her eulogy message for Reagan and attended the state funeral and interment of her long-time friend and political ally. Suffering a series of mini-strokes beginning around 2000, Thatcher herself was hampered by vascular dementia and the decline of her own keen memory and decisive thinking. An Oxford graduate and research chemist before becoming the world’s first female to lead a major Western democracy, the “Iron Lady” eventually stepped away from the public eye like her American counterpart. Living with her diagnosed dementia for 12 years, Baroness Thatcher died at age 87 of a final stroke in April 2013.
As two of the most indelible global leaders in world history, both Reagan and Thatcher could not overpower their dementia disorders that eventually narrowed their center-stage careers to home seclusion. Both the Reagan and Thatcher families have worked to bring dementia to the forefront internationally. What can we learn from their commitment to Alzheimer’s and dementia research and assistance for family caregivers?
1. Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease affect all people groups.
These cognitive conditions cross all socio-economic demographics. In America, prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia is higher in non-whites. Many studies conclude that older African-Americans are twice as likely to have Alzheimer’s and other dementia compared to older whites nationwide. U.S. Hispanics are about one-and-a-half times at greater risk for these brain illnesses compared to U.S. whites. The racial differences with Alzheimer’s and other dementia is linked to having at-risk health conditions including diabetes and high blood pressure.
People age 65 and older show the greatest rise in new dementia cases, but aging does not automatically equate to dementia. During the 1984 presidential election, Reagan’s age of 73 became a political issue. During a debate with his opponent, former Vice President Walter Mondale, Reagan quipped, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Regarding the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump (age 70) and Hillary Clinton (age 68) are the oldest two candidates in history. With other leaders like Vice President Joe Biden (age 73) and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) (age 80) still active in public service, perhaps America no longer views age as a limiting factor of leadership.
2. Silence perpetuates the stigma of dementia.
Two decades ago, the Reagans’ candor and courage unveiled the little-talked-about realities of Alzheimer’s disease. Within a year of Reagan’s diagnosis, the former first couple established the Ronald and Nancy Reagan Research Institute, partnering with the Alzheimer’s Association. Their decision to break the health privacies of public figures advanced the awareness of and fight against dementia-related diseases.
In 2001 about a year after her own dementia symptoms appeared, Thatcher became a patron of Alzheimer’s Research UK, Britain’s leading dementia and Alzheimer’s research charity. The Baroness’ dementia was finally publicly announced in 2008 when her daughter, Carol Thatcher, released a book highlighting the angst of watching her mother’s mental decline. “Sufferers look and act the same but beneath the familiar exterior something quite different is going on,” Carol wrote. “They’re in another world and you cannot enter.”
3. Families of people with progressive cognitive disease need care support, too.
Those living with dementia and their families are often regulated to the shadows and left alone to manage outside of normal society. But staying connected with a circle of family and friends is beneficial and supportive for both patients and their caring loved ones. The challenges of specialized dementia care can press families into their own sadness, anxiety and anger. Regular respite care for at-home caregivers is essential, as dementia typically advances slowly over the years.
4. Ongoing support and improved dementia-care training are lifelines.
The Reagans’ open disclosure of the former president’s anticipated mental decline brought relief to Alzheimer’s families across the world. Today, organizations like the Alzheimer’s Association offer a caregiver center stocked with reliable information, programs and resources and a 24-hour hotline, 1-800-272-3900, to help with support at any stage of dementia. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke at 800-352-9424 also lists an online resource page of dementia organizations (ninds.nih.gov/disorders/dementias/org_dementia.htm).
5. Research advancements are vital to help prevent, slow and end progressive cognitive disorders.
The Reagan Institute is credited with an expansion in the biological portion of Alzheimer’s research and has raised millions of dollars to back biomedical scientists in developing and testing treatments. Thatcher’s backing continues the Alzheimer’s Research UK’s pursuit of pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical therapies and a vision for “a world where people are free from the fear, harm and heartbreak of dementia” — a world in which those affected by dementia and Alzheimer’s reflect the inscription on Reagan’s headstone, “… there is purpose and worth to each and every life.”
How does Reagan’s and Thatcher’s personal stories inspire you to help fight dementia?
An award-winning journalist who has documented stories in nearly 20 countries, Beth Lueders is an author, writer and speaker who frequently reports on diverse topics, including aging and health issues for both U.S. and international corporations.