NRA President Charlton Heston, the star of film classics Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments, announced today that he suffers from neurological symptoms "consistent with" Alzheimer's disease, but that he was "neither giving up nor giving in."
"I believe I am still the fighter that Dr. [Martin Luther] King and JFK and Ronald Reagan knew, but it's a fight that I must someday call a draw," Heston, 77, said of his diagnosis in a taped announcement.
An estimated 4 million Americans have Alzheimer's, a degenerative brain disease for which there is no cure.
Heston's announcement was addressed to his friends, colleagues and fans.
"I've lived my whole life on the stage and screen before you," he said, adding, with an allusion to his role as Moses in The Ten Commandments, "I can part the Red Sea, but I can't part with you, which is why I won't exclude you from this stage in my life."
Most recently known for his role as president of the National Rifle Association, Heston did not indicate that he would be stepping down from that position. "For now I am not changing anything. I'll insist on work when I can. The doctors will insist on rest when I must."
Nancy Reagan, wife of former President Ronald Reagan, who has been battling the disease, reacted to the news in a statement. "I'm extremely sad he has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. However, I applaud his going public with the information."
A Diagnosis of Exclusion
"If you see a little less spring in my step, if your name fails to leap to my lips, you'll know why. And if I tell you a funny story for the second time, please laugh anyway," said Heston of the memory loss that is characteristic of Alzheimer's.
"Most people develop memory and thinking problems that are initially thought to be normal," says Dr. Steven DeKosky director of the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center at the University of Pittsburgh. "Those diagnosed with Alzheimer's have severe memory problems, spatial and language problems. We live in a verbal society, so it's much more easy to detect verbal abnormalities than nonverbal."
Alzheimer's is currently diagnosed using a battery of tests that assess ability to perform on daily tasks and awareness. Blood tests and some brain scans like MRI or PET may be used to help rule out other potential problems.
"A firm diagnosis [of Alzheimer's] will require an autopsy," explains Dr. Gary Wenk, professor of neurology at the University of Arizona Medical Center in Tuscon, which may account for Heston never specifically stating he had Alzheimer's disease.
The disease initially affects the areas of the brain that control memory, but progresses to destroy other areas of the brain and is fatal. The life-expectancy of those who receive the diagnosis is variable.
"In general, you can take people's life expectancy and cut it in half or 60 percent of what should have been," says DeKosky, "But there's a lot of variability. Some people may develop the disease around age 60. But they have healthy lungs and a healthy heart, and may live more years than someone who gets it at 85. You hear things like they will live eight to 10 years. Heston is 77 years old. So if you look at life expectancy of someone his age, which may be about 10 more years, you would cut it in half or three-quarters."
While there is no cure, advances in early diagnosis and treatment are giving many researchers cause for hope.
"Epidemiological and clinical studies have found several important associations, risk factors, which now provide critical clues for new therapies or prevention strategies," says Dr. Zaven S. Khachaturian, senior medical scientific advisor to the Alzheimer's Association. "In general there is a greater level of optimism that within a few years investigators will be able to modify or slow down the disease process."
Heston gained fame for his dramatic roles in biblical epics, including The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959) and The Greatest Story Every Told (1965).
He played Michelangelo in the The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), and starred as an astronaut resisting simian rule in Planet of the Apes (1968) and Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970).
In 2001, he appeared in the Jean-Claude Van Damme movie The Order, and provided the voice of the mastiff in Cats & Dogs.