Charlton Heston, the actor turned national gun rights advocate, announced Friday that he has a debilitating neurological disease.

"My physicians have recently told me that I may have a neurological disorder whose symptoms are consistent with Alzheimer's," Heston said. "For now I'm not changing anything; I'll insist on work when I can, the doctors will insist on rest when I must. If you see a little less spring in my step, if your name fails to leap to my lips, you'll know why. And if I tell you a funny story for the second time, please, laugh anyway."

Heston captivated audiences for centuries in roles from Moses to Michelangelo, but in recent years, his most popular role has been as the head of the National Rifle Association.

The NRA, which pushes for protection of the Second Amendment's clause on citizens' right to bear arms, said Heston will step back from some of his duties as president but will continue on as the organization's head at least until the next election in April 2003.

"Mr. Heston has every intention of serving out his term as NRA president and has not made a decision about running for another 12-month term," said Lisa Powers, spokeswoman for the NRA in northern Virginia.

NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said that "there are 4 million members of the NRA looking forward to him finishing his term," adding that gun owners would be pleased to see him run for another term.

"This is a man who is deeply loved by all of America for his life in general, and we feel the same way," LaPierre said. "He has taken the lead today and he will continue to take the lead in the future."

The four-term president of the association, its longest-serving head, has led the group to several strategic successes.

The NRA took credit for helping to elect President Bush, and in May, Heston said he would aim to have the president address the group's convention at the next convention in which he was expected to be a shoo-in for a fifth term.

"After all we did in the 2000 elections, I think we deserve a personal visit from President Bush next year, don't you?" Heston asked the cheering crowd at their 131st annual conference. The 78-year-old actor then held up an 1874 rifle and reprised a signature line: "From my cold dead hands."

With Heston at the top of the opposition, gun control advocates have had little success in Congress getting laws passed to increase restrictions on gun ownership, and the NRA has worked with gun manufacturers to resist lawsuits against companies whose guns are used in the commission of crimes.

The group has also been successful so far in fending off attempts to implement waiting periods on gun purchases at gun shows, and joined the suit against the campaign finance reform bill, arguing that restrictions on campaign advertising impinges on the First Amendment

On the state level, the NRA has helped move legislation through dozens of states to allow concealed weapons, something it argues will help reduce gun violence.

On the campaign trail, Heston has also been a champion of pro-gun rights candidates, defending the candidacies of representatives from Michigan Democratic Rep. John Dingell to Georgia Republican Rep. Bob Barr, both gun rights supporters.