RONALD Reagan was one of those rare individuals who loomed larger than life, and no better life-affirming legacy could be attached to his memory than finding a cure for Alzheimer's disease before it becomes an overwhelming health-care burden for the nation.
On the occasion of Mr. Reagan's death, the United States should dedicate a massive public initiative aimed at wiping out the debilitating brain disease, which first destroys the mind of its victims, then wears down the body, as it did to the 40th president in retirement.
Mr. Reagan died of pneumonia Saturday at the age of 93, nine and a half years after he made his own diagnosis public in a heart-wrenching letter to the people in which he referred to the disease as taking him into "the sunset of my life."
What America needs now is an unprecedented commitment to eradicating Alzheimer's in order that future generations escape the horrors of the disease and be assured of the "bright dawn ahead" that Mr. Reagan optimistically predicted would follow.
Anyone who has ever been close to or cared for a victim of Alzheimer's understands the urgency of finding a cure for this most malicious of mind-robbing maladies, which already afflicts some 4.5 million Americans.
Estimates are that at least 16 million will suffer from the disease by the time the last members of the Baby Boomer generation reach 85 in 2050. What we need are medical advances that will help keep the brain in reasonable working order as long as the rest of the body.
Alzheimer's is not what we used to refer to in the elderly as senility; it's worse. In its clutches, a victim suffers an agonizing progression of memory loss that leads to the inability to carry out the simplest tasks and attend to the body's most basic functions. Worst of all, it robs the victim of personal dignity.
While it exacts its terrible toll, Alzheimer's also gradually wears down family members, loved ones, and friends who are left to provide care. This can be an immense task, as victims often become agitated, combative, and impossible to manage in a family setting. Institutionalization, in a nursing home or similar facility, often is the only answer, and there aren't enough of those.
The legacy for caregivers is a general feeling of helplessness, guilt, and anger at being shut out of a loved one's life in its waning days, hours, and minutes.
The costs of discovering new ways to treat Alzheimer's, and ultimately finding a cure, are incalculable. But it is a cost the country must find a way to bear.
The public focus on the nature of the disease grew exponentially when Mr. Reagan's plight was disclosed a decade ago. Federally funded research has grown from $298 million a year then to more than $650 million today. But it is not enough.
Research so far has greatly increased understanding of Alzheimer's, but only five drugs have been developed, and they provide only limited relief from symptoms. Ironically, one of the most promising avenues of inquiry into a cure - stem cell research - has been foreclosed by President Bush's 2001 ban on experimentation with stem cells harvested from human embryos.
If an Alzheimer's cure is to become a reality, this artificial limitation on research must be dropped, notwithstanding the narrow objections of right-to-life conservatives. Logically, politically, and morally, the ideal time for the President to act is now.
Mr. Bush can count on the support of much of the scientific community, most of the American people and, most notably, of Nancy Reagan, who became an ardent advocate of stem cell research as her husband's life faded.
As Mrs. Reagan said less than a month ago, "There are so many diseases that can be cured or at least helped. We have lost so much time already and I just really can't bear to lose any more."
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