Famous people who suffer from the degenerative neurological Alzheimer's Disease remind us that there is currently no prevention, no cure, and no discrimination when it comes to diagnosis. Political figures, actors, and athletes alike can use their recognition to bring attention to the need for research, early diagnosis, and increased awareness. Ironically, though, the disease makes it extremely difficult for such figures to make public appearances, as they cannot reliably deliver speeches or interact with media when their memory and functionality is on the decline.
Perhaps the most well-known sufferer, of course, was the 40th President of the United States, Ronald Reagan. He drastically increased public awareness for the tragic illness through his personal mission of education and fundraising. In 1983, he declared November National Alzheimer's Disease month to call attention to the growing numbers of seniors succumbing to debilitation. He founded the Ronald and Nancy Reagan Research Institute, in coordination with the Alzheimer's Association, to explore the possible causes and courses of treatment, especially focusing on early detection. When he passed away in 2004, he left a lasting legacy of research funds to benefit a country whom now better understood and appreciated the tragic condition.
Other political figures have not been so public about their Alzheimer's Disease. The modern American conservative of the 60s, Barry Goldwater, who died of Alzheimer's in 1998, lived his last years in private. Experts still disagree whether Sir Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, suffered from Alzheimer's Disease or a dementia associated with strokes. A family doctor insists Churchill did not have the neurological disorder, yet many of his symptoms are consistent with Alzheimer's. More than anything, this speaks to the shame and uncertainty surrounding a proper diagnosis.
Charlton Heston, an actor and political activist, is among the few celebrities still suffering from Alzheimer's. Heston became famous in the 50s for epics such as The Ten Commandments. He remained popular for three decades, starring in adventures, westerns, and earning two Oscars. After retiring from acting, he took up conservative causes, most notably as President of the National Rifle Association. He's advocated for progress in Alzheimer's Disease after being diagnosed in 2001. On behalf of the Academy of Molecular Imaging, Heston released a public service announcement urging those without symptoms of Alzheimer's to use a new detection method, PET scans of the brain. Positron Emission Tomography can diagnose Alzheimer's very early and gives patients a chance to enjoy their symptom-free time.
Other actors, such as the classical Hollywood pin-up Rita Hayworth of the 40s and ultra-masculine Charles Bronson of the 60s, also had Alzheimer's Disease. Since they were diagnosed late, and didn't have the kind of public support recently garnered, our country's climate didn't permit them to make statements before their deaths. Similarly, the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson and singer Perry Como suffered from advanced Alzheimer's in the later years of their private life, and succumbed to the disease in 1989 and 2001 respectively.