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CNN Larry King Live

Unthinkable: The Alzheimer's Epidemic

Aired May 01, 2011 - 21:00   ET



LARRY KING, HOST: Tonight, Alzheimer's. A fatal disease that destroys your mind and your memory.

MARIA SHRIVER, FATHER DIES OF ALZHEIMER'S DISEASE: It's really challenging to look at your father or your mother and have them not know who you are.


KING: A looming epidemic.

RON REAGAN., PRESIDENT REAGAN'S SON: It's basically a coin flip as to whether or not you will have Alzheimer's.

KING: More than five million Americans have it. And the numbers are rising.

SETH ROGEN, ACTOR, FIANCEE'S MOTHER HAS ALZHEIMER'S DISEASE: More and more people in our generation are going to have to deal with it.

KING: There is no cure.

DR. RONALD PETERSEN, DIRECTOR, MAYO CLINIC ALZHEIMER'S DISEASE RESEARCH CENTER: This is the disease entity that is going to cripple the system.

KING: But there is hope.


ROGEN: We felt so --

KING: Seth Rogen, Angie Dickinson, Terrell Owens, Maria Shriver, Laura Bush, Leeza Gibbons open up about their own experiences with the disease.

Plus, Ron Reagan and I travel to a cutting-edge facility to see how people are diagnosed. One of us will take an Alzheimer's evaluation. One of us will not.



KING: Tonight's show is an important topic. According to the Alzheimer's Association, every 69 seconds another person is diagnosed with this horrifying disease.

It's the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. It has no known cure, which is why new guidelines have just been released to include people who have no symptoms yet or are only showing mild symptoms of it.

Tonight those who've experienced Alzheimer's firsthand share their stories.


ROGEN: We felt so alone in this.


OWENS: You know I just hold on to the good memories.

KING (voice-over): These are the faces and voices of those touched by Alzheimer's disease. They are actors.

ROGEN: No one we knew had experienced anything like this at this age.

DICKINSON: It was horrible to watch her be afflicted. You know. I would just sometimes just break down crying.

KING: And athletes.

OWENS: You know for me to sit here and talk, I get emotional. But I just -- I just enjoy the moment, you know, that I had with her.

KING: They are from famed political families.

SHRIVER: I think anybody who's not concerned about Alzheimer's is in denial.


KING: And they're from families just like yours.


KING: Rich or poor, famous or anonymous, Alzheimer's can strike anyone and the outcome is always the same.

GIBBONS: There is nothing more helpless and nothing more alone than knowing that someone you love has this diagnosis.

PETERSEN: Alzheimer's disease is probably the looming epidemic on the horizon for the United States as well as perhaps the world in general. KING: Dr. Ronald Petersen is director of the Mayo Clinic Alzheimer's Disease Research Center.

PETERSEN: There are probably 5.4 million people with Alzheimer's disease in the U.S. right now. And with the baby boomers, aging into the period of risk, this number is going to skyrocket.

This is the disease entity that is going to cripple the system in the next decade if we don't address it head-on at this point in time.

KING: For years the disease did not get the attention it deserved but in 1994, Ronald Reagan announced to the world that it had been diagnosed in him. The president put a very public face on what was often a very private matter.

Dr. Petersen was Ronald Reagan's Alzheimer's doctor.

PETERSEN: If he can get Alzheimer's disease, I can get Alzheimer's disease, so I think that opened up some doors for us and increased the public awareness of the frequency of individuals with Alzheimer's disease.

REAGAN: This is something that affects all of us, really.

KING: Ron Reagan Jr. says his interest in Alzheimer's began with his father's diagnosis.

REAGAN: I mean, if you think about the fact that by the age of 85, it's basically a coin flip as to whether or not you will have Alzheimer's or not. You know the chances of either getting the disease or having to be a caretaker for someone who has the disease is -- the odds are pretty good.

KING: We asked the president's son to share his story to help others understand what it's like for a family to experience it.

(On camera): So what was life like when you would visit it?

REAGAN: His personality remained really until the end. He was this very sort of warm presence in the room, even when he couldn't really express himself, which is, of course, a tragic irony for somebody who's known as the great communicator.

DR. JEFFREY CUMMINGS, DIRECTOR, CLEVELAND CLINIC LOU RUVO CENTER FOR BRAIN HEALTH: This is really a terrible disease. It undermines human dignity. It undermines that sense of self, you know, who we know we are is because of our memory and who we have been until this moment in our lives. And now that is beginning to be erased by the disease.

KING (voice-over): This diagnosis, Alzheimer's, was named after the German doctor who first discovered it in 1906 in the brain tissue of a woman in her 50s. What we know about the disease hasn't changed much. Doctors still do not have a cure. And only a few effective therapies exist.

It tends to strike people in their 60s and 70s, but it can even surface earlier. Essentially erasing their memories. Destroying their brain cells. Leaving them as a shell of who they once were. Until it eventually kills them. And helpless family members are left to watch it happen before their eyes.

And with warnings that the number of cases will triple by 2050 as the population ages, it's a growing disease that has doctors sounding an alarm.

CUMMINGS: We have not somehow impressed on people how common it is, how terrible it is and how much we need to combat it.

KING: Dr. Jeffrey Cummings of the Cleveland Clinic says the medical community is far behind where it needs to be.

CUMMINGS: We spend $6 billion a year on cancer. We spend $3 billion a year on HIV/AIDS research. We spend $500 million a year only on Alzheimer's disease research. And it is just as much of a killer as HIV or cancer is.

REAGAN: Imagine your own mind, which is really how you relate to the world, your mind creates the world for you in a sense, and now it's betraying you.

KING (on camera): During the failing years, I saw your mother a lot, quite a bit. How do you -- how do you assess how she handled it and how did you deal with it?

REAGAN: Well, she, of course, bore a much greater burden than I did. She was there, you know, every day, day in, day out. This is her spouse. This is the person she's been married to for, you know, 50- some odd years ultimately. And you know, the pain, the agony of seeing somebody you love that deeply fading away like that.

KING (voice-over): Ten years after his diagnosis, President Reagan died. For the Reagan family, it was both a relief and an unbearable loss.

REAGAN: I was with him when he died. Yes, he opened his eyes, looked at his wife for the last time.

KING (on camera): Was there a sign in the eyes?

REAGAN: Yes, yes. He looked at his wife -- he looked at my mother remarkably. I mean, it was -- it was something. It was something to see.

KING: Do you think his death helped Alzheimer's?

REAGAN: I would like to think so and I think he would like to think so. I know that he felt that way. Felt important. It was important that he write that letter to the American public.

KING (voice-over): President Reagan wanted to use that letter to tell the American people of his fate.

REAGAN: "My fellow Americans, I have recently been told I'm one the millions of Americans who will be afflicted with Alzheimer's disease."

KING: And to help the millions of others who would also share it.

REAGAN: "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. Thank you, my friends. Sincerely, Ronald Reagan."

Sorry. I can never get through that.


KING: Seventeen years after President Reagan put a public face on Alzheimer's, are we closer to finding a cure?

Ron Reagan and I learn about Alzheimer's testing and how doctors determine if you're at risk. One of us took a brain scan. One of us did not. Find out who did and didn't and why.

But first, actor Seth Rogen and football star Terrell Owens open up on their own Alzheimer's battles.


ROGEN: We had turned on the TV and seen someone else who was around our age talking about it, it would have made us feel a lot better.

OWENS: To this day she's never, you know, seen me play a football game.




KING: Alzheimer's is often thought of as an older person's problem, but each year younger people are finding themselves face to face with the issue in a very real way.

NFL star Terrell Owens is helping take care of the grandmother who helped raise him. He'll tell us how devastating it is when he visits her. And she doesn't know who he is. Or what he's accomplished.

But first, actor Seth Rogen and his fiancee Lauren Miller open up about their story. Both are in their late 20s. And like most young, had not thought much about Alzheimer's until Lauren's mom was diagnosed a few years ago.


LAUREN MILLER, MOTHER HAS ALZHEIMER'S DISEASE: She was diagnosed at 55. And now she's 59. She was a teacher her whole life and had to retire at 57. My dad, who retired also to take care of her. And now they, you know, just deal with it every day. ROGEN: It's terrible to see it happen. And I feel so bad for her father just to see -- I mean, I've seen a few times here or there she clearly doesn't really know who he is and why he's trying so hard to take care of her.

KING: Lauren's dad has become one of the estimated 15 million unpaid caregivers who give up so much of their own lives to now care for their loved ones.

MILLER: He does her hair. I mean, he takes her shopping if she needs something to wear. And my dad does not like shopping. And he's just amazing. You know I don't think you are 62 years old and, you know, one day out of retirement think that you're going to be taking care of your spouse with Alzheimer's.

KING (on camera): Are you angry about it?

MILLER: Very. It's pretty unfair. But, you know, I think the things that make me angry are that, unfortunately, this disease gets very little attention, especially with people, you know, that are our age. They know very little about it.

ROGEN: If there's one thing that like, you know, we represent it is that more and more people in our generation are going to have to deal with it, you know. We're dealing with it before most people will have to, but as you get older and you see it happening to your parents and ultimately realize it could happen to yourself and your friends, it becomes much more real and not some imaginary old person problem, you know?

KING: Why have you decided to be public about it?

MILLER: It's just become much more important to us to bring an awareness to it because we've seen firsthand how terrible it is.

ROGEN: We felt so alone in this. You know, no one we knew had experienced anything like this at this age. And I just know that if we had turned on the TV and seen someone else who was around our age talking about it, it would have made us feel a lot better.

OWENS: I grew up with my grandmother, lived with her, and pretty much she's the reason, you know, why I am who I am today.

KING (voice-over): Terrell Owens, the flamboyant wide receiver of the Cincinnati Bengals is also speaking out for his grandmother who helped raise the football star after his parents split up.

(On camera): Did she go to your high school games?

OWENS: Not much. Not much. My grandmother was very, very strict and she really didn't care for the sports world. You know, too much.


OWENS: She saw that as an avenue of me getting out of the house and getting in trouble. She just didn't really understand. KING (voice-over): T.O., a college athlete, was drafted into the NFL in 1996. The same year his grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

OWENS: It got to a point where, you know, she was kind of starting to wander off a little bit. She'd start misplacing, you know, her purse and things of that nature. My rookie season I remember exactly where I was when I got a phone call from my mom.

And that's when they said she had early stages of dementia, or what have you. And so, put her on the phone and she started talking. And her voice sounded pretty much like -- like a battery going dead? You know?

KING (on camera): Really?

OWENS: And -- yes. So I knew there was something wrong.

KING: When you went home to see her, what was it like?

OWENS: It got to the point where she didn't really notice or realize what I had become, you know as --

KING: Or you were playing?

OWENS: Right. Exactly. So to this day she's never, you know, seen me play a football game and really be conscious of --

KING: Does she still know who you are?

OWENS: Not anymore.

KING: Now here's a woman who helped raise you, right? A important part of your life. What is it like when you're with her and she don't know who you are? What's it like for you?

OWENS: You know, I'm -- it's -- I'm trying to hold it together now, but it's -- you know, I just hold on to the good memories.


KING: Coming up next, Maria Shriver speaks out publicly fort first time since her father's death from Alzheimer's disease earlier this year.


SHRIVER: It's just one of those diseases that there is no coming back from.


KING: And later, if you were at risk for Alzheimer's in the future, would you want to know? Ron Reagan and I traveled to the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas. One of us agrees to an evaluation, one of us does not. Find out what happened as Larry King special UNTHINKABLE: THE ALZHEIMER'S EPIDEMIC.


KING: Three incredible women open up about their personal stories of dealing with Alzheimer's disease. Former First Lady Laura Bush's father died of Alzheimer's in 1995. Actress Angie Dickinson's sister was diagnosed in 1984. She was only 55 years old. And Maria Shriver, speaking out tonight for the first time since her father, Sarge Shriver, died of Alzheimer's in January.

Maria opens up about her dad, her thoughts on Alzheimer's research, and why the disease is especially hard on women.


KING (on camera): How's the family doing?

SHRIVER: Well, it's a lot of changes. I'd say I've lost both my parents and my uncle in the last year and a half, so it's an adjustment period.

KING: You called Alzheimer's a defining challenge.

SHRIVER: Mm-hmm.

KING: Explain.

SHRIVER: Well, I think it is the defining challenge of our era and certainly of the baby boom era. The numbers are staggering. The costs to the nation are staggering. The costs to individual families are staggering. And it is -- I call it a mind-blowing disease because not only does it blow the mind of the person who gets it, but it blows the mind of everybody who loves that person.

KING (voice-over): Sergeant Shriver was another Kennedy family politician, the driving force behind the Peace Corps and the 1972 Democratic vice presidential candidate.

(On camera): Your dad was such an amazing guy.


KING: Did it come on quickly?

SHRIVER: Well, I don't think it might have for him, but for us, it was -- and I think from everybody I've spoken to, you slowly begin to notice or you think maybe but maybe not. And I think there's a lot of denial before you actually accept that a loved one has Alzheimer's.

KING: Was there a moment for you?

SHRIVER: No. There was no moment. There was just a slow realization and then a really long journey.

KING: Long good-bye. SHRIVER: Well, I think it's -- or a new hello every day. That's what I say, because you're meeting that person and that person's meeting you anew every day.

KING: What's it like, though, to have a father you love not know you?

SHRIVER: It's challenging. It's really challenging to look at your father or your mother and have them not know who you are and have to introduce yourself to them over and over again. Even though they look like your parent, they're not your parent. They become really your child.

KING (voice-over): As her dad's condition worsened, Maria took action. She used her training as a journalist and her position as California's first lady to bring attention to the disease, publishing a ground-breaking study looking at how Alzheimer's affects the economy, families and especially American women.

SHRIVER: "The Shriver Report" was the first report to really place Alzheimer's as a women's disease. It took on redefining it, saying that, for example, you know, the majority of people with it were women, the majority of people doing the caretaking were women.

We looked at the policies that were in place. We look at how women were able now to or not able to be primary breadwinners, primary parents and primary caretakers, and how society and institutions have not kept up with where women find themselves.

KING: Are you concerned for yourself?

SHRIVER: Absolutely. I think anybody who's not concerned about Alzheimer's is in denial. Everybody I've talked to who has a parent with Alzheimer's or a brother or sister is scared to death.

KING (voice-over): Laura Bush's father started showing signs of memory loss in the '90s.

BUSH: My dad really started to get sick. And I think we didn't know then that it was Alzheimer's. And it was really when my dad couldn't fill out bank deposit slips anymore that my mother sort of realized something was the matter. Slowly we saw him start to fail. And forget things.

His Alzheimer's never got so bad that he didn't know me. But he did on the very last Thanksgiving that we spent with him, after George had been elected governor, but before he'd been inaugurated.

We were in their living room and my dad said, who's that over there? And I said, well, dad, that's my husband, George Bush. And he said, you married George Bush? And I said, yes. And he laughed and said, I think I'll ask him for a loan. He never lost his sense of humor.

KING: Mrs. Bush says that her dad's disease progressed slowly but it became a burden for her mother who took care of him. She says the most important thing for families is to make sure they don't do this alone. BUSH: It's very important for caregivers to be sure they get help. Start to ask for help, look around for ways your family can come in and give you a little bit of a respite or friends can.

And that's, I think, the really hard part of caring for somebody. And I want to urge people to look around and see how you can help. For family members, for myself, I should have -- I felt like I should have been there more often for my mother.

KING: Angie Dickinson's been speaking out about Alzheimer's for decades.

DICKINSON: You don't do well with Alzheimer's. You just get worse and worse.

KING: She first talked about it on our show in 1991 after her sister was diagnosed at age 55.

DICKINSON: Everything is memory.

Mary Lou was absolutely wonderful. She was gorgeous. She was loving. She was gentle. She was a tender soul.

KING (on camera): You've spoken about her publicly for more than 20 years. Why?

DICKINSON: I want everyone to know, so that they can help and be helped.

KING (voice-over): Like many others, Dickinson noticed her sister's memory failing. She'd get lost driving, forget words, even holidays.

DICKINSON: I opened her drunk of her car and Christmas presents were in there. And it was spring or summer. That she had never took out. So I started to watch for the signs.

KING (on camera): Did it deteriorate fast?

DICKINSON: Yes. She went down fast.

KING: Did she lose recognition of you?

DICKINSON: Oh, yes. Oh, sure.

KING: What was it like for you?

DICKINSON: Well, I knew that was coming. I -- I was only sad for her. I wasn't sad for myself.

KING: But it is the long good-byes.

DICKINSON: Yes, it is. Yes. But you pray for the good-bye to come as soon as possible.

KING: You do?

DICKINSON: Absolutely.

KING: What would you say to people who are about to confront it as a family member?

DICKINSON: Well, I would say love them and I don't mean just love them with your soul and your head, love them with your arms and your company and your touch and whatever pleasure still might be there for them. And don't ever let up. Just stay as close as possible. Comforting them all the way because they're lost.

KING: And what would you say to someone diagnosed with it?

DICKINSON: I would say, oh, shit.


KING: When we come back, Leeza Gibbons on the pain of being a caregiver and watching the person you love slowly fade away.


GIBBONS: It is a stab to the heart the likes of which I have never experienced before.


KING: We'll be back with more right after this.


DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Don Lemon at the CNN world headquarter headquarters. Here are your headlines this hour.

A day of prayer for victims of the devastating tornadoes in the south. The death toll across six states now stands at 339.

Alabama took the hardest hit losing 250 people to the twisters. Senior administration officials today toured some of the worst hit places. Their primary message was to reassure survivors they will not be forgotten and the federal government will provide needed assistance.

Flooding is the problem in other places. A tiny Illinois town of Cairo facing pressure from rising waters on both the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. The Army Corps of Engineers is considering blowing up a levee in Missouri to ease the pressure.

That might save the town but it would send floodwaters pouring across thousands of acres of Missouri farmland. Missouri has already lost one court case to stop that demolition. It's now asking the U.S. Supreme Court to step in.

Those are your headlines this hour. "UNTHINKABLE: THE ALZHEIMER'S EPIDEMIC" continues right now.

KING: Alzheimer's affects more than just the person with the disease. Millions of family members suddenly find themselves as caregivers, having to drop everything to deal with the illness.

According to the Alzheimer's Association, some 15 million people, family members and friends, provided 17 billion hours or $202 billion of unpaid care to those with Alzheimer's disease last year.

Leeza Gibbons has made caring for the caregiver her cause after losing both her grandmother and her mother to the disease.


GIBBONS: No matter how smart you think you are, how educated you might be, how much money you might have, there is nothing more helpless and nothing more alone than knowing that someone you love has this diagnosis.

My mom started showing symptoms in her late 50s. By the time she was 63, Larry, we had a diagnosis. Ten years later she was gone.

KING (on camera): What was it like for you when she didn't know you?

GIBBONS: That's the cruelest moment. I'm sure everyone would tell you the same thing. And after she was diagnosed and I was home in South Carolina helping her make the bed and I said, mom, I can never get the corner of the bed as great as you do. And she said, you're such a nice lady. What's your name?

It is a stab to the heart, the likes of which I have never experienced before.

KING (voice-over): Leeza helped her father care for her mom while trying to maintain her own life and career. She knows what a burden it was for her family and millions of others.

GIBBONS: Many times the caregivers, because of what we call compassion fatigue, are sicker than their diagnosed loved ones. They're under assault. And my dad was under assault. We all were.

KING: After feeling that assault firsthand, Leeza started a memory foundation and opened Leeza's Place. There are eight locations around the country. It's a facility for people to get help and bond with others in similar situations. It's a place for caretakers to catch their breath.

GIBBONS: We care for the people who care for people. It's all about knowing that this is a journey that you cannot take by yourself.

KING: Being a caregiver for an Alzheimer's patient is often an emotionally, spiritually, and physically and exhausting experience.

GIBBONS: The caregivers have to know that the best way to love their diagnosed family member is to nourish themselves, mind, body, soul and spirit. And that's counterintuitive. These caregivers will give everything they have, but it's hard to get them to focus on their own needs.

KING: Molly Miller and Jackie Singer know too well the burden of being a caregiver. The twin sisters from Las Vegas are caring for their parents. Both diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease just six weeks apart from each other last summer.

SINGER: We weren't -- I can honestly say that we weren't familiar with many of the symptoms of Alzheimer's. Actually, all we had ever seen as far as the media was concerned and what we had read about Alzheimer's was apparently a later stage in Alzheimer's, which is a serious memory deficit.

We didn't know about what we later discovered were symptoms of Alzheimer's. We didn't know that things like maybe slight paranoia, maybe losing interest in things.

KING: Their parents had been married 69 years. As the disease took hold, their mother had trouble recognizing their father.


She wanted that man out of her house. She didn't know who he was. And she's strong enough that she was able to convince him that he wasn't her husband. And he --

So got so confused.

M. MILLER: He would ask us, where's my first wife?

KING: Their father responded to medication but their mother did not. Both parents who are independent up until a few months ago now need constant supervision.

M. MILLER: It's heartbreaking.

SINGER: We were -- we were so overwhelmed. It happened -- it happened very fast. When we realized -- it caught us off guard. We were so overwhelmed that all we wanted to do was try and get them help as fast as we could.

KING: Between Molly, Jackie and Jackie's twin daughters, the family has set up round-the-clock shifts, tending to their parents' every need.

SINGER: At this point right now we really have no life of our own. A typical day for us involves 24/7 care for them, just figuring out who's doing what.

In three weeks she went from feeding her own dog, like she said, dressing herself to being able to do nothing. Nothing. Not lift a comb, not wash your face, not hold a toothbrush, nothing.

M. MILLER: Toothbrush was very foreign.

SINGER: Right. And also questioning, what were these things. She'll turn around and say to me, this is so humiliating.

M. MILLER: She knows that. SINGER: She knows.

M. MILLER: This is so degrading.

SINGER: These are things I used to do myself.

M. MILLER: You shouldn't have to help me.

KING: Molly and Jackie are watching their parents slowly fade away.

M. MILLER: She asked me this morning, do you have a mother? I said, yes. That's good. You're a nice girl.

SINGER: Those are the things that can be difficult, yet we know that that's not really her.


SINGER: We've always had such a close relationship with her that we know that it's not her. You know, it tears you up. But it's not her.

M. MILLER: We feel like we've lost her already.

SINGER: We have. And we know it. So all we can do is make her life as comfortable and as peaceful and as joyful as possible. We may be crying now. It's been -- it's for us. It's for the loss that we know we're experiencing already.

But the truth is, there's also a lot of humor in this sometimes. There's a lot of times where we just laugh and she laughs with us. So even though it's hard for us, if we can bring her comfort and we can be there for them, that's what it's about.


KING: Molly and Jackie's mom passed away last month. The family continues to care for their father. We offer them our heartfelt condolences.

Ron Reagan and I visit the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas to see how doctors are treating the disease. One of us will be evaluated. The other will not. That's next.


KING: Would you want to know if you were at risk for Alzheimer's?

To learn more about the disease and how doctors diagnose it, I went to the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas. We asked Ron Reagan to come along with me to see how testing and treatments have changed since his father was diagnosed.

Well, one of us decided to take an evaluation to see if we were at risk. The other did not. We'll show you that in just a moment. But first, Larry Ruvo is the man behind this amazing center after his father died of it. He decided to do something to make sure others didn't go through the same frustrations his family experienced.


LARRY RUVO, FATHER DIED OF ALZHEIMER'S DISEASE: He was showing signs but we didn't know it was Alzheimer's and had no idea at that time that much about the disease. We were on the way back to the airport and he -- just the two of us were in the car and he looked at me and he says, how long do you think I have? And I said, I don't know about this disease to tell you but we're going to sure investigate it and look.

I was angry that there wasn't information that -- I knew other people had this disease in their families and why wasn't there information readily available in.

KING: So Larry Ruvo, a famed Las Vegas businessman, started making calls, gathering information, raising money. His self-described Alzheimer's obsession led to the building of this $80 million medical facility in downtown Las Vegas, designed, by the way, by world famous architect Frank Gerry.

To many people, it looks as if it's a giant stainless steel covered brain. Ruvo, a quintessential marketers, says the high profile project was all about getting people's attention.

RUVO: We knew that the world was going to know, we were going to build something in Las Vegas that was going to change the course of the disease.

KING: This state-of-the-art facility treats Alzheimer's and other diseases of the brain. Larry drew upon his own family's experiences to make sure patients here are treated with dignity and respect.

RUVO: There are no waiting rooms in our facility. And when my father went down for his original diagnosis he was in a waiting room with three other patients who are -- had been in stage three of the disease. I said that if I ever had an opportunity to help anybody at all, I would never commingle stage one with stage two with stage three of the disease.

KING: Larry partnered with the Cleveland Clinic and brought in some of the best brain doctors in the United States to work here.

Dr. Jeff Cummings heads up Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health.

(On camera): The first signs people say, the -- I don't know if it's a joke, if you forget where you lost your key, that's not Alzheimer's. If you forget what the key is for, that is Alzheimer's, is it that simple?

CUMMINGS: Well, that's not a bad -- not a bad way of thinking about it. Certainly memory loss is the first thing that occurs in the huge majority of cases.

KING: But everybody getting older loses memory. CUMMINGS: But it's the repeated not learning that's important. So, if you ask me, when are we going to the show tonight, and I tell you, you're likely to remember that. If you keep asking that question and don't lay down that memory, that's Alzheimer's disease.

KING (voice-over): The exact cause of Alzheimer's is still unknown but protein deposits called plaques and tangles are believed to play a big role in the destruction of brain cells, causing symptoms of the disease.

CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta explains.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: When you look deep inside the brain, what you're looking for typically are neurons. People typically know that word. That's the brain cells, so to speak. And they're conducting signals all the time. This is what makes --


KING (on camera): Goes through the body, right?

GUPTA: Yes. They go to each other and they go to the rest of the body. Then all of a sudden you can see what's happened here, Larry.

Two things. First of all you've got these proteins. They're called plaques and tangles, and those cells in there, not only do they stop working well but they actually start to die. So part of your brain actually is shrinking away in addition to not working well.

KING: Is that the memory part?

GUPTA: The memory part is often affected first. But what people often don't realize about Alzheimer's is that it really does affect the whole brain so people start having all sorts of different problems with movements --

KING: Headaches?

GUPTA: They can have headaches. But their movement, their swallowing, their ability to have -- you know, normal respirations, control their heart rate, their heartbeat, all of that. So that's why Alzheimer's is typically fatal.

KING (voice-over): Back at the Ruvo Center, Ron Reagan and I wanted to see how doctors make their diagnosis.


KING: Between the two of us, only one decided to be tested to see if we were at risk. That's me getting ready for an MRI. It's just one part of the evaluation. Ron Reagan decided not to participate.

First step was taking a scan of my brain. It's a 40-minute process as the technicians search for any signs that brain shrinkage has occurred. CUMMINGS: The MRI is one way of our looking at the structure of the brain. And we know that when Alzheimer's strikes, it strikes the memory portions of the brain first. So we can look at those memory portions and see if they're shrunken. And if they are, that's important evidence that the person has Alzheimer's.

KING: This is a scan of my brain. Later we'll tell you what Dr. Cummings saw.

Another part of the exam is memory testing. Since Alzheimer's affects the ability to learn and remember new information, Dr. Cummings is looking at my memory and recall skills.

KING (on camera): Grass. Engine.

CUMMINGS: Good. Now, tell me as many of those words as you can remember.

KING: Butter, arm, short --

CUMMINGS: Brain controls everything we are, Larry. Our memory, our thinking, our emotions, our movement, everything we are as human beings is controlled by the brain and that is eroded in the course of Alzheimer's.

KING (voice-over): There is no official test to tell if you will get the disease. Only if you're showing symptoms. And for now, the brain scan is only effective on people over age 60. Doctors are not ready to use these tests as screening tools like, say, a mammogram, just yet.

Ron Reagan watched me take the tests on this day, decided he didn't want to take any of his own.

(On camera): You don't want to know if you'll get it?

REAGAN: Until they come up with a cure or a real definite treatment, I'd just as soon remain blissfully ignorant.

KING: How well is our understanding of it improving?

CUMMINGS: I think we've made enormous strides in terms of understanding Alzheimer's disease. We know that there are several proteins involved. We know the cells are dying. We know that the clearance of the protein is reduced.

We have new tests that can show us the protein abnormalities in the brain. We're making definite strides in terms of the new therapeutics that are emerging. We don't know enough. We need a lot more research. But we're really making progress.

KING (voice-over): To change that researchers are studying segments of the population to see how they age, hoping to uncover clues as to what causes Alzheimer's in some but not others.

Dr. Petersen of the Mayo Clinic. PETERSEN: A great deal of research right now on Alzheimer's disease is focusing on imaging tests such as MRI scans, PET scans, even PET scans that can pick up the protein in the brain that's thought to be responsible for the disease as well as other biomarkers.

KING: The idea is to isolate early signs of Alzheimer's in patients with enough time to treat it before symptoms affect the individual.

PETERSEN: It's like we did with heart disease. So we don't wait for people to have heart attacks to address their cardiovascular problems. We look at people who have elevated cholesterol, people who have diabetes, people who have been smokers in the past to try and develop a prediction picture as to who's going to develop the disease.

Again, intervening as soon as possible to try to forestall those clinical events.


KING: So now we know more about what Alzheimer's is, how it affects you and what it does to your family. But can you prevent it? Or at least decrease the risk of getting it?

Plus, we'll go over my Alzheimer's results next on a Larry King special UNTHINKABLE: THE ALZHEIMER'S EPIDEMIC.


KING: Doctors are suggesting ways for people to begin protecting themselves from Alzheimer's. There are a number of steps you can take that may decrease your chance of getting it later in life. You do not have to wait for symptoms to appear before taking action.


SANDY PARKER, RICHARD PARKER'S WIFE: That was at Barbara's wedding.

KING (voice-over): Richard Parker was diagnosed with memory problems several years ago which could eventually lead to Alzheimer's. He is a former child actor who starred in movies with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. He says he had a photographic memory.

RICHARD PARKER, PARTICIPATING IN ALZHEIMER'S CLINICAL TRIAL: When you can remember things that -- and you remember them well, it just becomes natural but all of a sudden when you can't remember things and remember them as well as you used to, then it becomes a concern.

KING: His wife, Sandy, convinced him to see a doctor when she noticed him having some memory difficulty. He's been on medication for several years, which he says has helped slow down his loss. But more than anything, he's kept his mind and body active.

PARKER: I've always worked out. I just like it. It's just become a part of me. I do it every day. I try to walk my five miles. And when I do, I'd normally stop each mile around and I do 25 pushups until I've done 150. PETERSEN: What's become apparent in the last few years is that the development of Alzheimer's disease need not be a passive process. That is, let's just wait and see what happens down the road. But rather through lifestyle changes we can have an impact on our individual likelihood of developing cognitive impairment in the future.

So research is showing us now that lifestyle modifications such as aerobic exercise, staying active intellectually, engaging in a heart- healthy diet and staying involved in your social networks may very well postpone the likelihood of your developing cognitive impairment and maybe even Alzheimer's disease in the future.


KING: So what can you do? If you or your family have any concerns, talk to your doctor so you can be tested. Also, doctors suggest keeping your mind and body active, exercise, go on hikes, take up gardening, consume a low-fat diet, eat foods high in antioxidants like blueberries and other darkly colored fruits and vegetables. Engage your mind and memory, challenge yourself with crossword puzzles and games, keep yourself socially and mentally stimulated. Attend lectures or plays.

As someone in the age range of risk, I try to follow all of these practices.


CUMMINGS: There's no atrophy specific to those areas of the brain that are affected in Alzheimer's disease.

KING: And Dr. Cummings tells me my brain scan shows no visible symptoms of Alzheimer's disease or early memory loss. But for the millions of people who currently have the disease, for the millions about to be diagnosed and for the millions of family members caring for their loved ones, there is hope.

Research facilities around the world like the Mayo Clinic and the Cleveland Clinic are collaborating to find a cure.

With attention and activism, science is working to one day stop the UNTHINKABLE: THE ALZHEIMER'S EPIDEMIC.


KING: If you're concerned about your memory or the memory of someone you know, talk to your doctor. The earlier a professional can make a diagnosis, the better the possibility of effective treatment.

If you're a family member or someone with the disease, there are organizations that can help you. The Alzheimer's Association is a pretty good place to start.

We'd like to think everyone who opened up their lives to share these stories tonight. We thank you for watching. Good night, good health.