Charlton Heston has Alzheimer's symptoms
LOS ANGELES, California -- Charlton Heston said Friday that his doctors have told him he is "suffering symptoms consistent with Alzheimer's disease."
The actor and political activist said he is "neither giving up nor giving in" and will continue to work as long as he can.
Heston has played leading roles in more than 60 movies, and is perhaps best known as the hero of the biblical films, "Ben-Hur" -- for which he won an Oscar for best actor -- and "The Ten Commandments."
"For an actor, there is no greater loss than the loss of his audience," Heston said in his statement, which was videotaped Wednesday and played for reporters Friday. "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.
"For now, I'm not changing anything. I'll insist on work when I can; the doctors will insist on rest when I must.
"If you see a little less spring to 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."
'Cruelty of this disease'
Heston, 77, is a friend of former President Ronald Reagan, 91, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 1994, and his wife, Nancy.
In a statement, Mrs. Reagan said she was "extremely sad to hear that he has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. However, I applaud his going public with the information.
"Our family knows all too well the cruelty of this disease and we pray that God will give the Heston family, especially Lydia, who will be the primary caregiver, the strength to face each day that lies ahead," she said. "We hope that the public will allow them the necessary privacy that they deserve at this time." (Full statement)
Heston's spokesman said the actor will maintain a political speaking schedule and is in pre-production discussions on a movie.
Heston is president of the National Rifle Association. His term ends next April and the spokesman said he intends to remain in that post.
Difficult to diagnose
Heston's use of the phrase "symptoms consistent with Alzheimer's disease" probably means he has the disease, said Bill Thies, vice president for medical and scientific affairs at the Alzheimer's Association. If, after a few months, the symptoms worsen, "that probably nails it down," he said.
Though a definitive diagnosis is often difficult for doctors to make in the early stages of the disease, doctors typically use a battery of tests to make a diagnosis with near certainty, said Thies.
Tests include a neurological exam, a physical exam and a number of blood tests to exclude the possibility that symptoms are caused by other problems, such as an underactive thyroid, a stroke, a brain tumor or an imbalance of body salts, he said. Some medications also can cause symptoms matching those of the disease, he said.
Doctors use memory tests, too, to help confirm the diagnosis. "They've all been validated, so that a certain score is indicative of Alzheimer's disease," Thies said.
Alzheimer's disease was named after Alois Alzheimer, a German researcher who, in 1906, identified two characteristic lesions that indicate the disease: plaques of polymers encasing nerve cells in the brain and tangles of certain proteins inside nerves in the brain.
As many as 4 million people in the United States have the disease, Thies said. Since the risk for getting Alzheimer's increases with age, the number of people who have the disease is expected to balloon as baby boomers age, he said.
Heston, a classically trained actor, concluded his videotaped statement by quoting Prospero from William Shakespeare's "The Tempest":
"We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep."
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