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Do the Hur Report and Biden’s Age and Memory Really Matter?

Reporters have reached out to a number of neurologists and other experts on memory and aging since the Hur Report came out. Overall, they have have emphasized that a person’s cognitive abilities cannot be accurately assessed based on anecdotes, and with that acknowledged, there wasn’t anything particularly concerning or unusual about the the president’s memory lapses as detailed in the report.

As several doctors made clear to the New York Times, neither they — nor Special Counsel Hur, nor any pundits — are in a position to diagnose Biden, and Hur’s conjecture on the matter (that Biden has a “faulty memory”) was definitely not based on science:

In its simplest form, the issue is one that doctors and family members have been dealing with for decades: How do you know when an episode of confusion or a memory lapse is part of a serious decline? The answer: “You don’t,” said David Loewenstein, director of the center for cognitive neuroscience and aging at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. The diagnosis requires a battery of sophisticated and objective tests that probe several areas: different types of memory, language, executive function, problem solving, and spatial skills and attention. The tests, he said, determine if there is a medical condition, and if so, its nature and extent. 

A diagnosis might also require comparing recent memory test results to ones taken at least several years ago; understanding what precisely a person is and isn’t forgetting; interviewing family members and close associates; and ruling out various other factors that could be affecting a patient’s cognitive function, like medication they are taking or a recent injury.

And “neurologists say blanking on the names of acquaintances or having difficulty remembering dates from the past, especially when under stress, can simply be part of normal aging,” reports NBC News:

“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. Almost every older patient has trouble remembering people’s names, Newhouse said. “I think it’s by far the most universal complaint of every person as they age[.”] …

Dr. Dennis Selkoe, co-director of the Ann Romney Center for Neurologic Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, agreed that forgetting names doesn’t actually provide much insight into potential memory problems. In fact, stress and a lack of sleep, can interfere with memory, no matter how old someone is. “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. …

Overall, neurologists tend to worry less about a patient’s ability to remember remote memories from many years ago and more troubled by an inability to recall more recent events.

And while everyone’s memory declines as they age, and recalling dates and names can become more challenging, it’s not necessarily some universal impairment, as several experts explained to the Washington Post:

“It’s very clear that there are a number of changes that occur with aging and cognition that are just part of getting older,” said Bradford Dickerson, a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, who’s studied cognitive super-agers. Declines in the ability to think and remember among the elderly are broad and almost universal, he continued. “There’s just not much cognitively that’s better in an 80-year-old than in a 20-year-old.” …

Still, older brains can often compensate for their growing weakness, Dickerson and other researchers point out. “There’s evidence that older adults can strategically focus memory” on the most important information, [Harvard University psychology professor Daniel] Schacter said. Older brains often become more adept than younger brains at filtering irrelevant information or at making connections between experiences, the researchers agreed, because they’ve had more of them.

Joel Kramer, the director of the Memory and Aging Center at University of California, San Francisco, made a similar point to Stat News:

On average, an 80-year-old will not remember as well as a 60-year-old who won’t be remembering quite so much as a 40-year-old. But these are just general trends. And, you can’t really assume that this particular 80-year-old is going to remember less well than the average 40-year-old, or any 40-year-old. …

When there’s a considerable amount of disease, you might expect a more broad-based decline in memory as well as other [mental] skills. But they are really quite dissociable. And in fact, one of the ways that a lot of older people compensate for their memory problems is by having very good reasoning and planning and judgment. Some people argue that as we get older, you see an increase in wisdom and judgment.

There was a great study of airline pilots several years ago that showed that older pilots have slower reaction times, unquestionably, but they have more experience and better judgment. So this whole notion that because someone is 80 years old, they therefore have problems in memory and other skills, is completely bunk.

In a New York Times op-ed, Dr. Charan Ranganath, the director of the Dynamic Memory Lab at U.C. Davis, stresses that “there is forgetting and there is Forgetting”:

If you’re over the age of 40, you’ve most likely experienced the frustration of trying to grasp hold of that slippery word hovering on the tip of your tongue. Colloquially, this might be described as ‘forgetting,’ but most memory scientists would call this “retrieval failure,” meaning that the memory is there, but we just can’t pull it up when we need it. On the other hand, Forgetting (with a capital F) is when a memory is seemingly lost or gone altogether. Inattentively conflating the names of the leaders of two countries would fall in the first category, whereas being unable to remember that you had ever met the president of Egypt would fall into the latter.

Over the course of typical aging, we see changes in the functioning of the prefrontal cortex, a brain area that plays a starring role in many of our day-to-day memory successes and failures. These changes mean that, as we get older, we tend to be more distractible and often struggle to pull up the word or name we’re looking for. Remembering events takes longer and it requires more effort, and we can’t catch errors as quickly as we used to. This translates to a lot more forgetting, and a little more Forgetting. Many of the special counsel’s observations about Mr. Biden’s memory seem to fall in the category of forgetting, meaning that they are more indicative of a problem with finding the right information from memory than actual Forgetting.


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