Alzheimer's society welcomes Reagan's “bravery”

BMJ 1994; 309 doi: (Published 12 November 1994) Cite this as: BMJ 1994;309:1252
  1. C Court

    The former American president Ronald Reagan has taken the unprecedented step of sending a handwritten letter to the American people revealing that he is suffering from Alzheimer's disease. His action has been welcomed in Britain by the Alzheimer's Disease Society as “a brave decision.”

    Mr Reagan is the first person of such international repute to admit publicly to suffering from Alzheimer's disease, and his letter is being hailed as a great boost to the campaign to remove the stigma from mental illness. In the US attitudes towards stigmatising illnesses are more open than they are in Britain, as witnessed by the comprehensive publicity surrounding the treatment for alcohol dependency of Betty Ford, the wife of another former American president, Gerald Ford.

    In Britain attitudes are less far advanced. Clive Evers, assistant director of the Alzheimer's Disease Society, said: “Mr Reagan's statement is a sign of the progress that has been made in public understanding and acceptance of the nature of Alzheimer's disease in recent years. There is still some reticence in the United Kingdom for public figures to acknowledge the disease, but we believe Mr Reagan has made a major contribution towards the elimination of any remaining stigma that may still be associated with it.”

    The Alzheimer's Disease Society hopes that Mr Reagan's action will heighten awareness of the condition worldwide. Clive Evers said: “The experience of Mr Reagan and his family will be similar to that of 630 000 people with dementia in the United Kingdom. The individual and the family will need increasing help and support over time with this progressive and ultimately fatal condition.”

    But while Mr Reagan's courage has been praised by many, there are some who fear that the former president was such a figure of ridicule during his time in office that he may not be an appropriate or helpful figurehead to publicise the disease. Clive Evers disagrees: “There was always an element of lack of full credibility in his presidential career, but the comics and the satires reflected that, rather than the medical condition which he has now made known. We feel that his experience of the disease is separate and distinct from his political career.”

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