RIP Nancy Reagan: How the Former First Lady Boosted Alzheimer’s Research

When former President Ronald Reagan announced he was suffering from Alzheimer's disease in 1994, his wife—former first lady Nancy Reagan—used her voice and political influence to bring research of the disease to the forefront. In the wake of her death, the Alzheimer's Association honored Nancy Reagan for her work on the issue.

When Nancy Reagan died on Sunday, the American public lost more than an iconic first lady  and a powerful counterpart to former President Ronald Reagan. They also lost a major advocate for medical research.

That’s a point that groups in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease emphasized in the days following her death. Among those speaking up was the Alzheimer’s Association, a group that she began working with after she and her husband announced his diagnosis in 1994.

Ronald Reagan knew what he was in for, and so did Nancy. In 1983, the president declared the month of November National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month. Eleven years later, in the month of November, the couple made their announcement.

“Unfortunately, as Alzheimer’s disease progresses, the family often bears a heavy burden,” the president wrote at the time. “I only wish there was some way I could spare Nancy from this painful experience. When the time comes, I am confident that with your help she will face it with faith and courage.”

Shifting the Public Discussion

The Alzheimer’s Association noted that this letter helped set the stage for an important part of Nancy Reagan’s life: public health advocacy. While caring for her husband, she spoke up on the issues around the disease as well as the need for stem cell research.

“The public disclosure of their Alzheimer’s experience created an enormous and much-needed upsurge of interest in the disease from the general public and government officials,” Harry Johns, the association’s president and CEO, said in a statement this week. “It was our honor to work with Mrs. Reagan over the years to raise awareness and inspire progress in Alzheimer’s research.”

By speaking up about Alzheimer’s—and providing financial support by launching the Ronald and Nancy Reagan Research Institute in 1995—the couple played an important role in getting the American public to take it seriously, according to the Alzheimer’s Association’s Chief Science Officer Dr. Maria Carrillo.

“What she did was come out and label the disease. This is Alzheimer’s and Ronald Reagan has Alzheimer’s and it’s a disease,” Carrillo told Fox Business. “And, it really hit home because he was such a public figure and a leader. It really opened up people’s eyes for the very first time that Alzheimer’s was a disease.”

A Key Stem Cell Advocate

In addition, Reagan’s role as a leader on the issue of stem cell research helped to not only start a discussion on the issue but also to clear the air around what had been considered by some to be an ethically controversial realm of research, explained Dr. Hans Keirstead.

He noted that Reagan had reached out to him almost immediately after her husband’s diagnosis. After learning about the benefits of the research technique, she used her position to create a conversation about the issue.

“There was a lot of ignorance about where these cells came from, how they were procured, how they were used,” Keirstead told NPR. “She brought clarity to that by using her position, influencing senators, congressmen, politicians of all sorts as well as the federal government’s funding agencies like the National Institutes of Health.”

(Eric Thayer/Getty Images)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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