Cognitive Health Discussion: Biden’s Memory Challenges Spark National Conversation

President of the United States - Joe Biden | Credits: Bloomberg
President of the United States - Joe Biden | Credits: Bloomberg

United States: The report by special counsel Robert Hur released on Thursday described President Joe Biden as an “elderly man with a poor memory” leading to many misconceptions about the cognitive changes associated with ageing, say neurologists.

Normalizing Memory Lapses

The report observing Biden’s handling of classified documents stated that the president doesn’t remember accurately the time frame of his service as vice president and has difficulties recalling the period of the death of his late son, Beau Biden. Biden defiantly rejected the changes in a press conference late Thursday night and quoted, “My memory’s fine,” as per the reports by NBC News.

There is also a close observation of other recent episodes where the 81-year-old president mixed the names of foreign leaders.

On the contrary, neurologists think that not recalling the names of acquaintances or having trouble to remember dates from the past, especially when under stress, can be considered as a normal process of aging.

“If you asked me when my mother passed away, I couldn’t necessarily tell you the exact year because it was many years ago,” Dr Paul Newhouse, clinical core leader for the Vanderbilt Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, said.

Newhouse stated, “Almost every older patient has trouble remembering people’s names.”

“I think it’s by far the most universal complaint of every person as they age,” Newhouse said, the reprts by NBC News claimed.

In Newhouse’s experience, this kind of lapse does not actually indicate who will have memory problems. The diagnosis can be made only by a person’s doctor or neurologist; it cannot be done by external observers, say the brain experts.

Cognitive Advantages in Aging

Dennis Selkoe, MD, co-director of the Ann Romney Center for Neurologic Diseases at Brigham agreed that forgetting a name is not really talking about your potential memory problems. Actually, stress and not enough sleep interfere with memory, even in people of any age.

“Naming proper nouns is not an adequate basis to make a conclusion about whether an individual has a more consistent and more concerning substantive progressive memory disorder,” Selkoe said.

What are normal memory changes?

Although older brains tend to struggle with holding new data and then remembering it, the processes of judgment and decision-making may even improve with age, Dr. Thomas Wisniewski, director of NYU Langone Health’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center and its Center for Cognitive Neurology, said.

“Although the raw power of memory has some degree of decline, perhaps wisdom can increase because the individual has a greater backlog of experiences and different situations as to what is the best thing to do,” Wisniewski said.

It is not that they suffer from not remembering names or accidentally referring to someone using the wrong name, but rather the person has a vague memory about recent or past events. Problems in declarative memory — memory for events over time or in cases of memory loss of, for example, shopping, are not always evidence of progressive illness.

Wisniewski says this is his worst nightmare when one just doesn’t see one is already forgetting.

“They forgot that they went shopping, and they’re unaware that they’ve forgotten,” he said.

As a group, neurologists want to learn about the patient’s capability to recall remote memories from many years ago and concentrate on the inability to remember the recent events. It is because the initial symptoms are short-term memory loss; a part of the brain that is responsible for long-term memories is not affected, according to the reports by NBC.

“What I’m more concerned about is, can you remember what happened yesterday? Or an hour ago?” Newhouse said.

This one-sided narrative about aging tends to revolve around the deteriorating memories and executive functioning of a person, but there are still great cognitive advantages to being older, Selkoe opined.

“There is a type of emotional intelligence and ability to handle many different kinds of experiences in life that come with greater longevity,” he said. “People can make decisions more carefully and more rationally.”