WASHINGTON (AP) — Any parent who’s ever called one of their children by the other’s name — or even the family pet’s name — likely could empathize when President Joe Biden mixed up the names of French leaders Macron and Mitterrand.
The human brain may struggle with retrieving names from stored memories when prompted. However, it is important to determine when such verbal difficulties are typical and when they could indicate potential cognitive issues.
S. Jay Olshansky, a renowned aging researcher from the University of Illinois at Chicago, stated that he is not overly worried when he sees someone make a mistake on television. According to scientific findings, making mistakes is a natural occurrence and can be intensified by stress.
Biden, who is 81 years old, has a long record of making verbal mistakes. These gaffes have recently gained more attention after a special counsel concluded that Biden would not be charged with a crime for his handling of classified documents. However, the counsel also described him as an elderly man who struggles to remember dates, including the date of his son Beau’s death.
Biden, visibly angered, responded from the White House by stating, “My memory is not an issue.” He also addressed his son’s passing from brain cancer in 2015, stating, “When I was asked about it, I thought to myself that it was not their concern.”
Biden is not the sole contender who has made verbal mistakes. Donald Trump, the former President and likely opponent of Biden in the upcoming presidential election in November, has also made similar errors. In the previous month, the 77-year-old Trump mistakenly referred to his top rival for the GOP nomination, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, as former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California.
Medical professionals warn that neither verbal mistakes nor legal advice can determine if someone is experiencing cognitive impairment. This requires undergoing medical assessments.
However, there are certain issues that can occur at any point in life.
“According to Dr. Eric Lenze from Washington University in St. Louis, a geriatric psychiatrist who assesses cognition in older individuals, accurately remembering names in the moment is the most difficult task.”
Recent research has proposed that common instances of “misnaming” may arise from the brain organizing names into categories, such as family members, or in the case of Biden, world leaders he has been familiar with for a long time. Another explanation could be a phonetic mix-up, as both current French President Emmanuel Macron and former President Francois Mitterrand share the same initial letter “M.” Mitterrand passed away in 1996.
Regarding dates, emotions could be associated with certain memories but not with ordinary ones, like the special counsel’s inquiries about the time when Biden dealt with a box of documents.
According to Lenze, assigning a specific date to an event is not a natural function of the human brain, regardless of age. It is not as simple as organizing information in a spreadsheet.
According to Olshansky, stress and distractions can also impact memory, whether it involves recalling a name, date, or other information. Even the most skilled individuals may experience a momentary lapse in memory, commonly referred to as an “it’s on the tip of my tongue” moment, but for politicians and public figures, these mistakes are often captured on television.
Olshansky, who is 69 years old, reviews recordings of his presentations at scientific conferences and admits that he always makes mistakes. He believes that his age does not affect his ability to make mistakes, as he made the same ones when he was 39 years old.
According to Lenze, it is understandable for individuals to question the mental acuity of leaders in their 70s and 80s. However, it is reassuring when their overall message remains accurate despite occasional verbal mistakes.
It is common for cognitive abilities to decline with age, such as a slower memory recall. However, each person’s brain ages differently and factors like heart health, blood pressure, and physical activity can impact overall brain health.
Although Trump frequently boasts about completing a memory test in the style of a screening a few years ago, Lenze stated that a more comprehensive evaluation would involve thorough neuropsychological testing.
The AP Health and Science Department is funded by the Science and Educational Media Group of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The AP is solely responsible for all of its content.