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Editorial

Glen Campbell and Alzheimer's disease

The singer's decision to tour after announcing his diagnosis marks a new step in the public's journey into grappling with the disease that will afflict so many of us.

June 24, 2011

The Grammy Award-winning singer Glen Campbell announced this week that he is suffering from Alzheimer's disease. And then he said he'd be going on the road for a farewell tour.

It's not unusual for a public figure to reveal a diagnosis of the insidious disease. Former President Reagan told the world of his battle with Alzheimer's in a poignant letter in 1994. Actor Charlton Heston disclosed, via a taped statement, that he was suffering from symptoms similar to those of Alzheimer's. Peace Corps founder Sargent Shriver's 2003 diagnosis was also announced. Although Heston and Shriver later made occasional appearances — and the "Ben Hur" star gave an interview — those prominent men essentially exited the public stage. Or to quote Heston quoting Shakespeare in his statement, they bade farewell and "melted into air, into thin air."

What's extraordinary about the 75-year-old Campbell, who revealed his illness in an interview with People magazine, is his intention to stay in the spotlight — and ask his fans' indulgence. That decision, if he can carry it out, is a milestone in the fight against Alzheimer's, a disease that currently has no cure, afflicts 5 million Americans and will only strike more as baby boomers age.

Campbell's tour is an opportunity to show not only how widespread this disease is but that life goes on even after one is diagnosed with it. Like Michael J. Fox, who has put a working actor's face on living with Parkinson's disease, Campbell — the singer known for such country pop classics as "Wichita Lineman" and "Rhinestone Cowboy" — can put a face on living with Alzheimer's.

Of course, it is not always a pretty face. According to the People article, Campbell "repeats himself frequently, struggles to recall details of his life and is unsure of his age." Earlier this month — before he made his condition known — a sold-out concert he gave in Indiana was panned by a critic who called the singer "unprepared at best and disoriented at worst." Interestingly, some fans wrote in to the paper defending him. Of course, future concertgoers will know the back story. But it may be a taste of what's to come. And instead of just being saddened, fans should walk away determined to press for more research and funding into this horrendous disease that affects so many.

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