• History
  • health

Read Ronald Reagan’s Letter to the American People About His Alzheimer’s Diagnosis

4 minute read

When Ronald Reagan became President on the eve of his 70th birthday, many saw him as a symbol of vigor in age. The 1981 TIME article about that perception was, in fact, the first time the phrase “Alzheimer’s Disease” appeared in the pages of the magazine. Within a few years, however, awareness and diagnosis of Alzheimer’s (which was first identified in 1906) were increasing, due to better scientific knowledge, an aging population, medicine that helped sufferers live longer and the evolving awareness that the condition was not just a normal part of aging.

But perhaps no one did more to increase awareness—the need for which is observed in September, during World Alzheimer’s Awareness Month—than President Reagan did.

In 1994, when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, he explained to the people of the U.S. and the world that public awareness was part of the decision not to keep the news to himself. The open letter in which he made the announcement is transcribed below:

Nov. 5, 1994

My Fellow Americans,

I have recently been told that I am one of the millions of Americans who will be afflicted with Alzheimer’s Disease.

Upon learning this news, Nancy and I had to decide whether as private citizens we would keep this a private matter or whether we would make this news known in a public way.

In the past Nancy suffered from breast cancer and I had my cancer surgeries. We found through our open disclosures we were able to raise public awareness. We were happy that as a result many more people underwent testing.

They were treated in early stages and able to return to normal, healthy lives.

So now, we feel it is important to share it with you. In opening our hearts, we hope this might promote greater awareness of this condition. Perhaps it will encourage a clearer understanding of the individuals and families who are affected by it.

At the moment I feel just fine. I intend to live the remainder of the years God gives me on this earth doing the things I have always done. I will continue to share life’s journey with my beloved Nancy and my family. I plan to enjoy the great outdoors and stay in touch with my friends and supporters.

Unfortunately, as Alzheimer’s Disease progresses, the family often bears a heavy burden. 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.

In closing let me thank you, the American people for giving me the great honor of allowing me to serve as your President. When the Lord calls me home, whenever that may be, I will leave with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future.

I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.

Thank you, my friends. May God always bless you.


Ronald Reagan

Get your history fix in one place: sign up for the weekly TIME History newsletter

“Reagan’s act of candor will undoubtedly raise public awareness of Alzheimer’s and give support for research a powerful boost. In that way, he will walk in distinguished company once again,” noted TIME’s Hugh Sidey in the wake of the announcement. “Franklin Roosevelt launched the March of Dimes that ultimately conquered polio. Dwight Eisenhower’s frankness about his heart disease changed the way the world treated this affliction. The publicized bouts of Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan with breast cancer led thousands of women to undergo mammograms. Ronald Reagan’s successful battles with ill health over the years have been an inspiration to all, even those who disagreed with his politics. He may not be able to win this battle, but the way he’s fighting it — with candor and courage — could be one of his most important legacies.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com