On Inauguration Day 2021, Donald Trump will be 74 years old and Joe Biden 78. Age doesn’t necessarily determine one’s overall health, but questions involving both men’s mental abilities have been swirling for some time and are likely to take center stage in the upcoming 2020 presidential campaign. A president’s overall health is not a constitutional requirement, yet Americans are right to be concerned about the physical and cognitive capacities of their commander in chief. For both men, it is the brainpower that has come under scrutiny. So, who really has the upper hand in terms of healthy gray matter?
First, Some History
For a century, historians have pondered who was really in charge of the country following Woodrow Wilson’s severe stroke in October of 1919. As well, much of FDR’s myriad health problems were kept very hush-hush throughout the 1940s. Then there was Dwight D. Eisenhower, who suffered a heart attack during his first term as president in the fall of 1955. And a public campaign to portray John F. Kennedy as healthy as a horse ensued when there were questions about his physical fitness. Following his untimely death, it was revealed that Kennedy was wracked with chronic pain resulting from injury and disease.
Fast forward to the current day, and almost since the day he took the oath of office Democrats have argued that Donald Trump is mentally unfit. These concerns about the president have persisted and are often reported on left-leaning cable news channels. It now appears that a secret psychiatric panel is forming to “judge the mental health of Trump,” according to Washington Examiner.
Not to be outdone, those on the right consistently highlight a relentless list of “gaffes” made on the campaign trail by former Vice President Joe Biden. The question is whether these are merely silly slips of the lip or harbingers of a pernicious cognitive deficit – be it from age or his medical history. The truth is that much of the media is engaged in more heat than light regarding both men’s neuropsychiatric health. But there is one crucial difference.
Joe Biden has suffered two brain aneurysms.
Just this spring, Dr. Neal Kassell, the neurosurgeon who operated on Mr. Biden, stated that the former VP is “totally in the clear.” In issuing a positive endorsement of Biden’s brain health, Kassell asserted that the Democratic frontrunner is better than he was before the surgery. But it could be that this is just more public spin. Based on medical studies and reports regarding the long-term effects of people who have suffered brain aneurysms, there is reason to regard this evaluation with some trepidation.
Keeping in mind that Mr. Biden had not one but two of these, it is within bounds to ask what the medical community says about the after-effects of people who have undergone this type of surgery. In 2013, a study was conducted on 217 people who had survived ruptured aneurysms ten years after their diagnosis and treatment. The analysis was done in Stockholm, Sweden. Researchers concluded that 70% of those who underwent cranial surgery “had increased problems in four out of five dimensions of quality of life” and “an increased rate of health problems.”
An abstract in a 1991 edition of the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry again looked closely at the neurological damage following aneurysm surgery. Researchers conducted “tests of intellect, memory and conceptual learning of three sub-groups of patients.” The “testing took place 12 to 84 months post-surgery and were compared with a control group of volunteers “with no history of neurological or psychiatric disorder.” Here is their conclusion:
“On average, the ACoA ruptured aneurysm patients showed a greater degree of intellectual and memory deterioration than the control group, and their performance was poorer on the WCST, a measure of conceptual learning.”
WCST is a neuropsychological exam that evaluates frontal lobe function. The study did find that 41% of patients “showed no demonstrable evidence of impairment and could be designated as having made an excellent recovery.”
Even presuming Joe Biden was one of the 41% (if Dr. Kassell is to be believed) who made an excellent recovery — the odds are almost 60% that the former VP has demonstrated deficits in the areas of intellect or memory. Can we chalk up Mr. Biden’s inability to remember the URL of his website, the name of the president under whom he served, or even the name of the state he is standing in as simple “gaffes?”
Or could it be that we are seeing the long-term effects of a serious medical event in the life of Joe Biden?