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Alzheimer's Group Says Reagan Was Early Supporter of Efforts Against Disease - 2004-06-08

When former U.S. President Ronald Reagan died June 5 from pneumonia, his passing ended a decade of struggle against Alzheimer's Disease. The Reagan family has had a long relationship with the Alzheimer's Association, which was formed in 1980, the same year Mr. Reagan took office, and which today is the world's largest private funding source for research into the debilitating and, at present, incurable brain disorder. In an interview with VOA's Dave Arlington, the group's president, Sheldon Goldberg, recalled that President Reagan took an early interest in Alzheimer's research and education.

Goldberg: ?It was in 1983 that he [became] the first president to recognize this disease as a national health emergency. He issued a proclamation establishing what is called, National Alzheimer's Month, where people paid attention to this disease. He expressed a great deal of interest and we have tried to maintain a very strong relationship with the Reagan family. Before he was diagnosed, Mrs. Reagan was very involved in various fund raising galas, which the organization has sponsored. And obviously since 1994, there has been a tremendous amount of involvement of the family to raise funds, to help us commit ourselves to research and also support the caregivers.?

Arlington: ?Just a few months short of ten years ago, Ronald Reagan when issued a public letter to Americans saying that he was in the early stages of Alzheimer's. What was the impact of that letter??

Goldberg: ?The impact of that letter was the most high profile individual in the world saying that even presidents can get Alzheimer's disease. It had an unbelievably catalytic affect on this organization. So often, we approach Alzheimer's as something that you sweep under the closet or put in the back room, he said with his letter that this is a national health priority and we need to address it. Since that point in time, there have been growing legions of researchers paying attention to this. We've learned clearly that this is not normal aging, this is brain disease, and this brain disease needs to be treated and needs to be cured. And the Reagan family, Ronald Reagan specifically, helped to establish that goal.?

Arlington: ?Your association joined with the Reagans in creating a special research institute that does basic science, starting back in 1995. What significance has this institute had??

Goldberg: ?It is an institute that the Reagan family allowed us to name after them, with their support and assistance in fund raising. There is a tremendous need for more research. This basic science helps, but I will tell you in the last fifteen years, we have made tremendous progress. If you had this disease ten years ago, there was nothing they could prescribe for you. Today there is a handful of drugs that provide modest assistance to individuals. It is our hope that in the next five to ten years, we will have the treatments so the baby-boom generation doesn't have to be exposed to this disease. We hope to interrupt this disease or stop this disease.?

Arlington: ?Your organization is asking for donations in the name of Ronald Reagan. What has been the response??

Goldberg: ?We have had tremendous response to our web page, The response has been enormous in terms of people wanting to know about the organization and what they can do, just simply getting information. We also have a crisis line that has been going on for many years. It is 24 hours a day, seven days a week for people with concerns about Alzheimer's. Those calls go to local chapters.?

Arlington: ?While the nation has lost a leader, you have lost a living symbol of the need for Alzheimer's research and education. How do you build on the Reagan legacy??

Goldberg: ?Well, he helped to shine the light on this disease and we will fight to shine the light on this disease until we find a way of curing this disease. There are many other people of great influence who have this disease, they may wish not to be published or identified. We think part of the tremendous leadership of Ronald Reagan and the Reagan family, was their willingness to communicate directly with the American people. So, as he led the country, he also led in the fight against Alzheimer's disease. He was a man of great optimism for the future, part of his optimism is hoping that others will not be afflicted with this disease.?

Sheldon Goldberg, President of the Alzheimer's Association, spoke with VOA's Dave Arlington. The organization is asking Congress for a $40 million increase in federal funding to help carry out large-scale clinical trials that might identify treatments to slow or halt the onset and progression of Alzheimer's.