February 6, 2011 is the 100th anniversary of the birth of President Ronald Reagan. President Reagan helped to raise public awareness about Alzheimer's disease with the first proclamation of National Alzheimer's Disease Month in November 1983. Eleven years later, he publicly announced his own diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease in a poignant letter to the American people. To date, he is the most well-known public figure to disclose an Alzheimer diagnosis.
Reagan's diagnosis shows no one is immune to this disease -- not even the man who once held the most powerful office in the land. His deterioration and ultimate death from Alzheimer's shines a bright light on the devastating human toll of this disease for the Americans who live with it and those who care for them.
Despite these efforts -- and those of powerful advocates like David Hyde Pierce, Maria Shiver and Sandra Day O'Connor -- a grave stigma still surrounds Alzheimer's disease.
Stigma is fear. Stigma is prejudice. And stigma is contagious. Stigma about Alzheimer's disease causes unnecessary additional suffering. It is an obstacle to receiving an early and accurate diagnosis and good quality care afterwards. It prevents families from enjoying special moments before Alzheimer's steals them away. Stigma keeps us from realizing the true impact of the disease and its burgeoning effects in the future.
Alzheimer's is the nation's sixth-leading cause of death. This devastating, heartbreaking and costly disease ultimately kills more Americans than diabetes, and more than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined. Alzheimer's is the only one of the top 10 causes of death where we have no method to prevent it, cure it or slow its progression.
Federal Alzheimer research is woefully underfunded, inhibiting us from making the progress that has been achieved against other major diseases. In fact, death rates from Alzheimer's are skyrocketing while death rates from other diseases, such as heart disease, HIV/AIDS and certain cancers, are plummeting.
And, unlike these other diseases, there are currently no survivors.
But, now, we do have champions. Today thousands of people diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer's are using their amazingly powerful voices to break down the stigma and pave a better path for those who will follow.
Libby Embry of Abilene, TX, is one of these champions. After teaching English for 23 years, this energetic grandmother of three was diagnosed with Alzheimer's at age 59. Libby said, "Some people diagnosed with Alzheimer's sit down and wait for the disease to run its course. I will not do that. I will have control of my life as long as I possibly can."
Libby shares her story around the country as a member of the Alzheimer's Association Early-Stage Advisory Group. She attends the Alzheimer's Association Advocacy Forum in Washington, D.C. to speak up for the value of early detection and increased funding for research. She recently participated in a live chat session on Twitter with doctors and nurses.
Follow Libby's lead. It's time to speak up. Talk to your friends and family about Alzheimer's disease. Talk to your doctor as soon as you have concerns. Talk to your legislators about increasing federal funding for Alzheimer care and research. Talk to people you know with Alzheimer's and the people who are caring for them. Use your voice to change the course of Alzheimer's disease.
To learn more about Alzheimer's disease and how you can make a difference, visit alz.org. Together, we can still win one for the Gipper.