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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - It's been almost 15 years since former U.S. President Ronald Reagan told the world he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, hoping his disclosure would promote awareness of the heart-breaking brain disorder that slowly destroys memory.
Now, with an estimated 26 million people worldwide living with disease and a predicted 11 million by 2050 in the United States alone, a unique series by cable TV network HBO aims to change how people think of Alzheimer's so they will put time and money into finding a cure.
The unprecedented multi-platform series runs throughout May and features four documentaries, 15 short films, a book, a community outreach program and a website (www.HBO.com/alzheimers) covering every aspect of Alzheimer's.
"The numbers are growing at a rate that nobody ever fathomed. As babyboomers age, it is coming right at us and we have to do something," said Maria Shriver, wife of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and executive producer of "The Alzheimer's Project."
"This is an epidemic for this generation. A cure is within our reach if we focus on it, allocate the money and pressure our lawmakers. If we don't, the impact has devastating consequences," Shriver told Reuters.
"The Alzheimer's Project", starting on May 10, looks at the disease's impact on victims, their families and caregivers. It also includes a science film that takes viewers inside the labs and clinics of 25 leading physicians and researchers.
While there is no cure for what is the most second-feared illness in America after cancer, the program concludes there are reasons to be optimistic.
"There are about 90 clinical trials under way in different phases," Shriver said. "There is a lot of hope within the scientific and research community that there is a cure out there, without saying the cure is around the corner."
Shriver has direct experience with the disease. Her father, long-time Washington figure Sargent Shriver, was diagnosed in 1983. As part of the HBO series, she presents a film for young teens in which kids talk about being the grandchild of a loved one whose memory is in various stages of slipping away.
"When my father was diagnosed, this was not a disease that people wanted to talk about," Shriver said. "The more families sit down and have these open, honest conversations where everybody can air their questions and express their fears -- that is empowering and really helpful."
Shriver said there were no difficulties finding families willing to talk on camera.
"People know how powerful it is to share their stories," she said. "People who've had someone who has gotten Alzheimer's really want to help others not go through the same thing. They want to be part of the solution."
One film features a man called Chuck, 54, who cared for his mother until she died and is one of 12 of the 14 children in her family who is now suffering from Alzheimer's.
Shriver acknowledged some films are overwhelming. "It's not easy to watch," she said, "but I think it is television worth viewing.
"I am hopeful people won't just sit and watch it and think that was moving and sad and then go about their business. It's always a challenge to move people and then move them off the couch."
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Bill Trott