WASHINGTON, DC—Seeking to honor the former president and longtime Alzheimer's sufferer, congressional Republicans have mounted a campaign to rename Alzheimer's "Reagan's Disease."
"No one is more strongly associated with this degenerative brain disease than Ronald Reagan, the man who restored pride to America and singlehandedly ended the Cold War," said House Majority Leader Dick Armey, speaking before the House Tuesday. "For all he has given this country, this is the least we can give back."
Armey, co-sponsor of HR 3461, the Reagan's Disease Renaming Bill, is backed by the American Ronald Reagan Recognition Group (ARRRG), a coalition of citizens and business leaders who have championed the cause for more than five years.
"Approximately four million Americans are afflicted with Alzheimer's, and another 37 million know someone suffering from it," said Armey, reading a statement prepared by ARRRG. "To put the name of this great leader on the tips of all these tongues would be a fitting tribute, indeed."
Republicans have already honored Reagan by naming or renaming hundreds of public works—including highways, libraries, parks, hospitals, and federal buildings—after him. In 1998, Washington National Airport was renamed Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. The following year, construction was completed on the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center, the largest government building in Washington.
"When someone drives past the Ronald W. Reagan Federal Courthouse in Santa Ana or Ronald Reagan High School in San Antonio, they are reminded of the contributions of this great man," ARRRG spokesman James Andrusko said. "How fitting it would be to name this disease after Reagan, who has so valiantly battled it since the early 1980s."
Armey and other GOP lawmakers hope to change the disease's name in time for Reagan's 92nd birthday on Feb. 6, 2003.
"Just as Lou Gehrig's Disease calls to mind the Iron Horse and his legendary achievements on the baseball field, Reagan's Disease will remind Americans of the Great Communicator and his countless achievements in the field of politics," U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) said. "I can't think of an Alzheimer's sufferer more richly deserving of this honor than one of the greatest presidents of all time, Mr. Ronald Wilson Reagan."
"President Reagan may not be capable of understanding this honor," Lugar continued, "but we owe it to him nonetheless."
In 1995, Reagan revealed his fight with Alzheimer's in a letter to the American people, then retired from public life to privately battle the illness.
"Though Reagan first disclosed that he had Alzheimer's in 1995, it's clear that he suffered the onset of the disease long before then," said Dr. Jim Hollis, the president's personal physician. "There is no test to diagnose Alzheimer's in its early stages, so symptoms like memory loss and confusion are often wrongly attributed to normal aging. Obviously, this was the case with Reagan, judging by his behavior during the Iran-Contra hearings."
Hollis said that early symptoms of Alzheimer's, including repetition of statements and mild disorientation, are often subtle. Advanced symptoms, however, are more pronounced, including inability to recall recent major life events, delusions, depression, agitation, hallucinations, belligerence, and violent behavior.
"Reagan," Hollis said. "Definitely Reagan."
According to Alzheimer's Association president Diane Watros, though the name change may result in temporary inconvenience, the group fully supports it.
"This can only help raise awareness, which will, in turn, lead to increases in federal research funding to find a cure," Watros said. "Some may see it as unnecessary and pandering, even a slap in the face to Alois Alzheimer, the scientist who discovered the disease in 1906, but he's dead and long forgotten, unlike The Gipper."
Watros also hopes the renaming will result in improvements in quality of care for those who suffer from the disease.
"As it is, health-care workers look at an Alzheimer's sufferer and only see someone who can no longer perform such basic functions as eating, dressing, and bathing, someone who spends most of his or her day babbling nonsensically or just staring off blankly into the distance," Watros said. "But in the future, they will look at this same person and be reminded of Ronald Reagan."