View Full Version : While Known for Being Forgetful, Reagan Was Mentally Sound in Office, Doctors Say

01-17-2011, 12:02 AM
Published: October 5, 1997
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When former President Ronald Reagan disclosed in November 1994 that he had Alzheimer's disease, many people could not help suspecting that the illness had begun to rob him of memory while he was in the White House.

Throughout his years in Washington, Mr. Reagan had been portrayed by many pundits and political opponents as absent-minded, inattentive, incurious, even lazy. And his Presidency was marked by a succession of very public mental stumbles -- most notably his dismal performance in the first debate of the 1984 campaign, and his confused and forgetful accounting of his role in the Iran-contra affair.

But even with the hindsight of Mr. Reagan's diagnosis, his four main White House doctors say they never detected any evidence that his forgetfulness was more than just that. His mental competence in office, they said in a series of recent interviews, was never in doubt. Indeed, they pointed out, tests of his mental status did not begin to show evidence of the disease until the summer of 1993, more than four years after he left the White House.

''There was never anything that would raise a question about his ability to function as President,'' said Dr. Lawrence C. Mohr, one of Mr. Reagan's physicians in his second term. ''Ronald Reagan's cognitive function, belief structure, judgment, ability to choose between options, behavior and ability to communicate were totally and completely intact.''

Mr. Reagan's diagnosis raised questions not only about his mental competence in office but about how well his White House doctors had monitored it. Dr. John E. Hutton Jr., the chief White House physician during Mr. Reagan's last two years in office and a close family friend, said he was speaking out with the permission of the former President's wife, Nancy, chiefly to rebut published statements questioning Mr. Reagan's mental status in office.

The doctors said they had taken the unusual step of discussing their former patient's medical history publicly because neither they nor Mr. Reagan had covered up any illness, and because they did not want history to see them as having done so.

While the doctors said they were familiar with Alzheimer's, none is an expert in it. But an Alzheimer's specialist -- after reviewing videotapes of news conferences and major events late in Mr. Reagan's Presidency, as well as the doctors' descriptions -- said he, too, saw no evidence that Mr. Reagan had the disease as President.

Close Observations

One day in his last two years as President, Mr. Reagan walked into the White House medical office, greeted Dr. Mohr and said: ''I have three things that I want to tell you today. The first is that I seem to be having a little problem with my memory. I cannot remember the other two.''

As Dr. Mohr saw it, Mr. Reagan's quip was his characteristically joking way of expressing his anxieties about the mild forgetfulness of aging. ''No question, there were occasional short-term memory lapses,'' Dr. Mohr said. ''Were they frequent? No. Were they every day? No.''

Alzheimer's begins to show itself by causing relatively subtle changes in memory, judgment and reasoning. People with the disease can then go on to have difficulty remembering what they said or read a few minutes earlier; they forget the names of relatives and friends. Later, they may have difficulty completing simple tasks.

So in looking for early signs of mental impairment, experts say, doctors generally ask about and observe the way a patient transacts the routine business of the day. What makes this early diagnosis so hard is that these are the same things people tend to forget as they age; unlike, say, breaking a bone, the onset of Alzheimer's cannot be pinpointed. And while certain tests can strongly indicate Alzheimer's, there are no specific blood or other tests to confirm the diagnosis while the patient is alive.

Still, his occasional lapses notwithstanding, the doctors said they had seen no significant changes in Mr. Reagan's mental competence in the White House. From his election in 1980 until he left in January of 1989, they said, the President was always well clear of that fuzzy line where forgetting becomes Alzheimer's.
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