“My heart sank as he floundered his way through his responses, fumbling with his notes, uncharacteristically lost for words. He looked tired and bewildered,” Ron Reagan, the son of President Ronald Reagan, wrote of his father’s performance during the first 1984 presidential debate.
At the time, there had long been rumors that Reagan was suffering from cognitive impairment — perhaps Alzheimer’s Disease — and as he struggled during the first debate against his Democratic opponent, former Vice President Walter Mondale, those concerns threatened his reelection campaign. He recovered during the second debate with a memorable quip, joking that he would not allow age to become an issue in the campaign because “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” The audience laughed, the nation moved on… and, a decade later, Reagan announced to the world that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s…
I must add that I am not trying to add to the stigma that surrounds mental health issues. I have written before about how mental illness is stigmatized in dangerous and unjust ways, how as an autistic person I am especially sensitive to mental health-based discrimination and how I have been personally impacted by it.
At the same time: Whether one likes it or not, there is a difference between a president simply having a mental health issue like anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder or alcoholism (one 2006 study found that just under half of America’s presidents had at least one of those conditions, including our greatest president — Abraham Lincoln) and a president being incapable of doing the job because of mental health issues.
News in Context:
- Mental illness in U.S. Presidents between 1776 and 1974: a review of biographical sources (The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease). Abstract: Numerous historical accounts suggest the presence of mental illness in US Presidents, but no systematic review has been undertaken for all holders of this office. We reviewed biographical sources regarding mental illness in 37 US Presidents from 1776 to 1974. Material was extracted by one of the authors and given to experienced psychiatrists for independent review of the correspondence of behaviors, symptoms, and medical information in source material to DSM-IV criteria for Axis I disorders. Levels of confidence were given for each diagnosis. Eighteen (49%) Presidents met criteria suggesting psychiatric disorder: depression (24%), anxiety (8%), bipolar disorder (8%), and alcohol abuse/dependence (8%) were the most common. In 10 instances (27%), a disorder was evident during presidential office, which in most cases probably impaired job performance. Mental illness in heads of state is a topic deserving further attention. Methodological limitations of using biography to determine psychopathology are discussed.
- Trend: With 25% of US physicians aged 65+, hospitals test older doctors on mental and physical acuity
- Preparing Society for the Cognitive Age (Frontiers in Neuroscience article)
- What are cognitive abilities and how to boost them?
- Testing and training cognitive ability: Key Neurotech Patent #16
- Study: 10-minute cognitive test MoCA helps predict long-term motor, cognitive and mortality outcomes after stroke
- The FDA clears two computerized cognitive tests to assist in medical evaluations following brain injury or concussion