Thankfully, that reticence is becoming socially obsolete. Openness, particularly by the admired and famous, about diseases once considered too embarrassing to be mentioned has led to a greater public willingness to be tested and increased funding for research and public education.
President Ronald Reagan undoubtedly saved many lives, even as he embarrassed his wife, by his refusal to keep quiet about his colonoscopies and subsequent colon surgery. As he succumbed to Alzheimer's disease, his wife Nancy broke with Republican orthodoxy by calling for greater stem-cell research into what is still an irreversible disease.
Now the fight against that horribly cruel disease has acquired a new and formidable champion, Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt, winner of not only eight national championships, but winner of more games than any other coach, man or woman.
And she is only 59, which must have been especially crushing when after a series of tests a few months ago the Mayo Clinic informed her that she had early-onset dementia, Alzheimer's type. Over time the disease will, at its own erratic pace, destroy her memory and cognitive abilities.
Summitt informed Tennessee's top administrators of her debilitating ailment and, to their credit, Chancellor Jimmy Cheek told her, "You are now and always will be our coach."
Given the realities of the disease, it is a promise that cannot be kept. But Summitt plans to keep coaching, and with her considerable drive and energy and the help of her staff of veteran assistants, that might be a long time, longer than the "few more seasons" the experts give her and longer than Alzheimer's normally affords its victims.
Her resolve could stand as an inspiration to the 5 million other Alzheimer's sufferers in this country and their caregivers and galvanize efforts to ameliorate or even cure this pernicious process that wipes the brain clean.
We're sure all Georgians join with their neighbors just up the road in Tennessee who hope she fights it for as long as she can and, as the time draws near, does not, as the poet said, go gentle into that good night.