What If a U.S. President Got Alzheimer’s?

by Nancy Wurtzel on April 21, 2015

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Have you ever thought of the complications and possible outcomes that would arise if a U.S. sitting president and leader of the free world developed Alzheimer’s disease?

Well, it may surprise you to know we’ve been through this situation already with our nation’s 40th president, Ronald Reagan.

A fascinating new study published last month in The Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease finds that comparing Reagan’s speech patterns over the course of his presidency shows subtle changes indicative of the onset of dementia.

These findings are the result of extensive study of the 46 press conferences Reagan gave during his presidency.  These press conferences of President Reagan’s were compared to the 101 press conferences by George H.W. Bush, who was elected President, succeded Reagan and served one term.

Reagan was and remains, the oldest elected president, taking office in 1981 at age 69.  He left office in 1989, after serving two terms.  Four years later he revealed he had Alzheimer’s disease.

Did Reagan Have Alzheimer’s While President?

While President Reagan was known by staff and the public to forget facts, names, and other information, the study does not assert dementia made him unfit to serve as President.

Rather, the premise of the study was to look at how changes in speech patterns could be an early indicator of dementia at work in a person’s brain prior to other, more obvious symptoms.  The press conference format provides a nearly-ideal setting as it requires more “thinking on the feet” and “spontaneity” over a prepared speech.

Visar Berisha and Julie Liss, professors of speech and hearing science at the University of Arizona, chose President Reagan because he was the only person with documented Alzheimer’s disease who also had an extensive library of transcripts available to the public.  President H.W. Bush was also studied because he was around the same age as Reagan (64 when elected to the presidency), he served consecutively to Reagan, and he has not shown signs of cognitive loss.

The researchers found no changes in the speech patterns of President Bush, but Reagan’s speech patterns clearly indicated a decline during his years in office.

For instance, over time President Reagan used fewer unique words while the use of repetitive words increased.  Also increasing in frequency during the latter years of his presidency was Reagan’s tendency to substitute words like “thing” for specific nouns.

How can this help those with Alzheimer’s?

Language may indeed be one of the earliest indicators of cognitive changes.  With this in mind, Professor’s Berisha and Liss hope to begin a new study.  This time they would record conversations between physicians and their patients over time and then analyze them for speech and language changes.

I’m not a fan of Ronald Reagan’s politics, but I know he is beloved by many.  I certainly honor and am greatly appreciative of his 1994 announcement that he had Alzheimer’s, which did so much to bring the disease out of the shadows.  It’s also great to know that studying Reagan’s press conference 35 years later could help unlock some new information that will bring us closer to understanding how this disease first presents itself.

*Photo by George Rex, Found on Flickr/Creative Commons.  See more of George Rex’s work here.


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