Always the activist and deeply devoted to her father, Maureen Reagan became a national leader in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease before her formidable voice and boundless energy were stilled by cancer this month.
Maureen Reagan went way beyond the celebrity’s role of merely lending her name to the work of defeating Alzheimer’s disease. She was an activist on the Alzheimer’s Association board of directors; a masterful fundraiser; a forceful witness asking Congress for more research funds and a tireless traveler to anywhere and everywhere a local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association needed help.
When stopped by illness last October, she was on a comprehensive tour of local chapters to help with public policy, crowd building or fund-raising – whatever they asked for.
“Today, a world without Alzheimer’s is more than wishful thinking – it is an achievable goal,” she often told the media, other families suffering with the disease and many of her friends in Congress. She recited the research breakthroughs of the 1990s and called for increased federal funding needed to finish the job of “seeing, in our lifetime, a way to delay, prevent or even cure the disease.”
She called her father “my hero” and took great pride in two actions of his – a presidential proclamation urging more vigorous research on Alzheimer’s in 1983 and, 11 years later, an open letter stating that he had Alzheimer’s. That courageous announcement has been widely credited with advancing popular knowledge of the disease and eliminating the shame of families dealing with the disease.
“The emotional, financial and social consequences of Alzheimer’s disease are so devastating that it deserves special attention,” President Reagan said in the 1983 proclamation. “Research is the only hope for victims and families.”
Congress doubled federal funding for research in the early 1990s, which for Maureen was the source of unswerving optimism that a research breakthrough was near at hand. While advocating forcefully for more research funding, Maureen also recognized the need to support caregivers and to be sure prescription drug coverage is available through Medicare so people can afford the new treatments that are coming along.
But, her real passion was for eradicating the disease through research. At every stop in her relentless campaign, she reiterated that the researchers “are in a race against time before Alzheimer’s reaches epidemic levels” with the aging of the baby boomers.
“Fourteen million U.S. baby boomers are living with a sentence of Alzheimer’s today,” she said last year. “By 2030, the number of Americans with the disease will double to 8 million on the way to 14 million by 2050. So we must find answers in the next 10 years, before baby boomers start turning 65.”
Despite the dire facts she recited about an epidemic, Maureen Reagan never wavered in her optimism. “The best scientific minds have been brought into the race against Alzheimer’s, a solid infrastructure is in place and the path for further investigations is clear. What’s missing is the money, especially the federal investment, to keep up the necessary pace,” she said.
Over the last six months from her hospital bed and home, Maureen Reagan continued her fight for more federal research monies. She led an organizational charge on Congress to invest $1 billion dollars a year at NIH focused on Alzheimer’s research.
In April, right after her release from the hospital, she appeared on Larry King Live and urged all American’s to contact their member of Congress to support legislation that would provide the research monies needed to cure Alzheimer’s.
As she always said, “It’s a race against time. But it’s a race we can win.”