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When the late President Ronald Reagan announced in 1994 that he suffered from Alzheimer's disease, his acknowledgment ratcheted up efforts to find treatments and a cure.

That's the goal of PBS's The Forgetting: A Portrait of Alzheimer's, a documentary adapted from David Shenk's book The Forgetting–—Alzheimer's: Portrait of an Epidemic. The special, which originally aired on Jan. 21 and will probably air on some PBS affiliates to coincide with National Alzheimer's Disease Month in November, was rebroadcast last month. The scheduling was planned months before Reagan's passing but nearly coincided with it.

The degenerative brain disorder affects 4.5 million Americans.

"We believe this is what we're all about: taking on subjects that connect with a lot of people," says John Wilson, senior vice president of programming at PBS. "Not only to provide the television program but then to extend it beyond broadcast, with a huge Web site and lot of community partners."

On many PBS stations, The Forgetting
was followed by Alzheimer's: The Help You Need, hosted by Frasier's David Hyde Pierce. The half-hour special was developed to provide viewers with information about the disease and resources for getting help. Some PBS affiliates developed their own special to include local experts and direct viewers to regional resources.

"It was a compassionate and practical guide for people, to answer basic questions like: How do I take away the car? What do I do about finances? Is there life after caregiving?" says Naomi Boak, executive producer of The Forgetting. "It was really a great response after the 90-minute special," she adds, "because it allowed you to sort through a lot of the issues raised in the documentary."

Both The Forgetting
and The Help You Need
are part of an extensive effort from PBS, its affiliates and underwriter MetLife to raise awareness of Alzheimer's and advances in medical treatments for the disease.

Described by PBS as the "most comprehensive campaign on a disease ever conducted by a media enterprise," The Forgetting
generated a 2.6 household rating and 4 share in January and a 1.5/2 last month.

The impact of The Forgetting
extends far beyond television. In January, 400,000 people viewed a related Web site on

Around the same time, the Alzheimer's Association Web site had 12,000 hits, a one-day record. And the number of people calling the night of the broadcast reached 2,433, compared with about 75 most nights.