Saturday, January 15, 2011

Ronald Reagan and Alzheimer's Disease

Ron Reagan, son of the former president, has made waves in the media with his sensational claim that his father developed Alzheimer’s disease while he was still in the White House, perhaps as early as his first term.

Reagan outlines his claim in a new book about his father to be released next week, just in time for the centennial of President Reagan’s birth.

The younger Reagan points to his father’s shaky performance in the first presidential debate with Walter Mondale in 1984 as proof of his claim. He also states that doctors treating President Reagan for a concussion and subdural hematoma after a riding accident in July 1989 – just six months after he left the presidency – found evidence of Alzheimer’s then.

I find the timing of Ron Reagan’s announcement somewhat opportunistic, and its substance counter-intuitive.

President Reagan adhered to an extensive public speaking schedule (including televised addresses) and participated in 37 televised news conferences, always under the eye of an ideologically hostile media.  If the man were losing his mind, I think someone would have noticed.

So I went back and looked at what President Reagan’s two principal biographers – Lou Cannon and Edmund Morris – had to say on the subject.

Both agree that Reagan’s condition was formally diagnosed by doctors at the Mayo Clinic in August 1994, but that his declining mental acuity was very apparent a year before that.

Cannon cites a birthday event held at the Reagan Presidential Library in February 1993 in which the president repeated verbatim a toast he had just delivered. In his book Dutch, Morris states that Reagan’s condition was “provisionally diagnosed” as Alzheimer’s by Mayo Clinic doctors in 1993.

Morris pinpoints the beginning of Reagan’s decline to the aforementioned riding accident. Nancy Reagan herself has said that she and Reagan’s doctors both believe that the injuries sustained in that accident triggered the onset of the disease. While the accident may have initiated Reagan's decline, that doesn't mean he developed Alzheimer's overnight.

But both biographers offer solid evidence that Reagan was not afflicted by the disease as president or even early in his post-presidency.

Cannon reported finding a “lucid and reflective” Reagan when he interviewed him on February 6, 1991. He also references the 29 stump appearances and videotapes Reagan made for Republican candidates in 1990, as well as the very well-received speech he delivered at the 1992 Republican convention.

If Reagan were in the throes of Alzheimer’s, then the people around him – especially his wife – would not have allowed him to participate in these activities.

Further, Morris - who had unprecedented access to Reagan throughout his presidency and afterwards - calls Reagan’s extensive White House diaries, “uniform and style and cognitive content from beginning to end.” He finds, “no hint of mental deterioration beyond occasional repetitions and non sequiturs; and if those were suggestive of early dementia, many diarists including myself would have reason to worry.”

So, my gut tells me that Ron Reagan’s eleventh hour disclosure was for the purpose of leveraging the anniversary of his father's birth in order to sell books. Unless he can point to clear evidence of Reagan being impaired while president, I’m inclined to believe what his biographers wrote.


  1. This proves nothing. People in the early years of Alzheimer's are often quite lucid but this is interspersed with times of great confusion. The evidence that Alzheimer's starts years before becoming bad enough to be diagnosed is very clear.

  2. I think it's pretty wrong that Ron would try to use this shot at his father as a way to promote his own book.

    On the other hand, perhaps the fact that we are having this debate at all shows that maybe it's time we stopped electing old fogies to the White House.

    Not that our current young buck is doing much better...

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