The Emotional Moment Ronald Reagan Learned He Had Alzheimer's: I'm Entering the 'Sunset of My Life'

"The diagnosis and his heartfelt letter had precipitated a 'final letting go,'  sort of surrender to the disease," author Bob Spitz writes in his new biography about Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan Speaking at the Republican National Convention
Photo: Ralf-Finn Hestoft/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

While former president Ronald Reagan showed increased signs of memory loss over the years (he once toasted Margaret Thatcher twice in a row), it wasn’t until November 4, 1994, that the then-84-year-old learned he had Alzheimer’s disease. A new biography about the 40th president, Reagan: An American Journey , by Bob Spitz, reveals how devastating the news was for Reagan and his wife, Nancy — so much so that he was moved to write a letter to the American people that same day.

“[Nancy] tried her upmost to be supportive, but was overcome hearing about the devastations of the disease,” Spitz writes. “Noticing her unease, the doctor made a point about how difficult Alzheimer’s can be on loved ones, and particularly, the caretaker. He acknowledged, quite bluntly, ‘There is no cure.’ ”

The former president’s response? He asked a few questions and then went to a “small round table in a corner” to write a letter.

Nancy - 11
Courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library; photographer: Michael Evans

“When he finished, he handed two sheets of paper filled with his cramped handwriting to [Fred] Ryan. ‘Why don’t we get this typed up and put out,’ ” Reagan told his former chief of staff. After the Reagans left the doctor’s office “for the seclusion of the ranch,” the handwritten note was photocopied and released to news outlets throughout the country, according to the book.

The letter was addressed to “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,” the former president wrote, according to

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He went on to explain that he and Nancy decided to share the news in order to spread awareness about the condition.

“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,” he wrote. “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.”

He ended the letter, “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,” he concluded.

The book reveals that Reagan kept up his “old schedule” for “several months,” but “mostly his public appearances were restricted to photo ops in order to avoid embarrassing situations in which he’d repeat himself or forget where he was.” He would eventually ended his appearances altogether.

“He made it clear right from the beginning that he wanted people to remember him as they had known him,” Ryan, Reagan’s former chief of staff, told the author.

Mrs. Reagan watched as her husband quickly deteriorated in the six months after his diagnosis, Spitz writes.

“The diagnosis and his heartfelt letter had precipitated a ‘final letting go,’ sort of surrender to the disease,” the author writes. “Reagan slowed down — slooooooowed down — and his hair got a little grayer. He lost the pleasure of going to the ranch, an aversion to long car rides being one of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s.”

In Reagan, Spitz writes that the former first lady dedicated herself to her husband’s care for the last ten years of his life. But the task was a difficult one.

“She ached for him,” producer and Reagan family friend Doug Wick told the author. “She talked to me about the romance she had for him, how once, during his battle with Alzheimer’s he had gotten up at four in the morning and dressed, as if to go out, and how it had broken her heart to coax him back to bed.”

Ronald Reagan passed away on June 5, 2004. According to the book, in the last moments of his life, the former president looked for his wife.

“With his last breath, he angled his head to one side,” Spitz writes, “opened his eyes wide, wider, until they found Nancy’s face. He looked right at her, then closed his eyes and was gone.”

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