Uproar About Reagan's Memoir Highlights Need for Better Understanding of Alzheimer's Stages

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • There’s been quite a ruckus started by Ron Reagan’s memoir of his father, President Ronald Reagan. The book, “My Father at 100,” suggests that Reagan was exhibiting signs of Alzheimer’s while he was in the White House.

    In a recent New York Times article, Dr. Lawrence K. Altman described the clarification he received during an interview with the younger Reagan. “All he meant…was that the amyloid plaque characteristic of Alzheimer’s can start forming years before it leads to dementia. The former president’s diagnosis was made in 1993, four years after he left office,” Altman wrote. “‘Given what we know about the disease,’ his son told me, ‘I don’t know how you could say that the disease wasn’t likely present in him during the presidency.’”

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    Based on my own personal experience with my mother, what Reagan said makes sense. I’d suggest that when people who are unacquainted with Alzheimer’s think of the disease, they most often think of a stereotypical image – a person who doesn’t remember their phone number, can’t distinguish family members, or is unaware of their surroundings or recent events. President Reagan had not reached these stages (which are Stages 5 and 6 of the disease). However, there are still several earlier stages to consider before writing off Ron Reagan’s recollections. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, these stages include:

    • Stage 1 – No impairment is evident.
    • Stage 2 – Very mild cognitive decline. Although the person may feel as if he or she is experiencing memory lapses, symptoms cannot be detected by family or medical personnel.
    • Stage 3 – Mild cognitive decline. Symptoms start becoming evident, which can include:     noticeable problems coming up with the right word or name; trouble remembering names when introduced to new people; having noticeably greater difficulty performing tasks in social or work settings; forgetting material that one has just read; losing or misplacing a valuable object; and increasing trouble with planning or organizing.
    • Stage 4 – Moderate cognitive decline. A medical interview can determine clear cut problems. Symptoms can include: forgetfulness of recent events; impaired ability to perform challenging mental arithmetic —for example, counting backward from 100 by 7s; greater difficulty performing complex tasks, such as planning dinner for guests, paying bills or managing finances; forgetfulness about one's own personal history; and becoming moody or withdrawn, especially in socially or mentally challenging situations.

    Some of Reagan’s colleagues and friends seem to back up Ron Reagan’s assessment in a report on NBC Washington’s “NiteSide” section. “I think Ron Reagan and his disclosures about his father were deeply personal,” Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation was quoted as saying. “I feel they were very honest and, more importantly, Leslie Stahl and others I know that worked with Ronald Reagan at that time shared the fact that he had already begun to have an Alzheimer's affliction before he left office and I think that with all due respect... I expect that Ron may have it more correctly than others because they’re corroborating stories."  Clemons also said he saw Reagan experience “great lapses” of silence.

  • I hope that critics of Ron Reagan’s book will take the time to learn about Alzheimer’s, instead of leaping to judgment and stubbornly disagreeing. I also hope that they will consider join the fight to stop this disease as a way to honor President Reagan.

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Published On: February 22, 2011