How soon into Reagan's presidency did the rumors of dementia start?

My only experience with dementia is my grandmother’s second husband, which went into full blown Alzheimer’s, and my father. We lost Dad in 2016 from other causes. He was never diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, but definitely had dementia.

I believe President Trump has dementia judging by some of his actions, and comparing him to what I saw with my dad. I know there have been rumors for a few years.

I was between 9 - 17 when Reagan was in office. I remember that his Alzheimer’s wasn’t announced until he was out of office for a couple of years. Of course, then everyone said, “Ah, that explains everything.” Anyway, question is in the title. Were there rumor’s of Reagan’s dementia early in his term, they didn’t start until later?

Its hard to prove a negative in this case, but I don’t recall any rumors of dementia during his presidency. It was only afterwards.

I do remember Bill Clinton mentioning talking to him and he not recalling a name, a event that bothered Reagan and made him say something like “I hate this when it happens.” but I believe that event happened after Reagan’s presidency.

https://www.nytimes.com/1994/11/06/us/in-poignant-public-letter-reagan-reveals-that-he-has-alzheimer-s.html

Cite? I don’t recall anything of the sort. I do recall that there were concerns by his staff at one point in his presidency but they were quickly dismissed. As for remembering names, I remember Denis Thatcher having a similar problem and he covered it up by saying things like, “My dear boy…”

No cite. Just remembering family, friend’s parents, “the man on the street,” etc. saying things like that.

There certainly were comments about Reagan being dumb/stupid/addle brained while in office as well as his having to have 3x5 note cards with him all the goddamn time, but it wasn’t until a trial for one of the Iran Contra scum, maybe it was Oliver North where Reagan testified and it was bad for him. He had stopped coloring his hair so everyone was shocked, SHOCKED that a man in his 70’s who had recently had the most stressful job on the planet had grey/white hair.

Anyway, Reagan’s testimony was embarrassing, he was all over the place.

Oh, just remembered, in 1984 he debated Dem nominee Walter Mondale a couple of times and the first one was a shitshow, Reagan looked awful, misremembering facts. Afterwards Nancy came rushing up to the debate prep team shrieking and screeching, “What the fuck did you do to Ronnie??!!!” and there was some talk of his being senile, but it never went anywhere.

The president’s “forgetfulness” became a topic of conversation during Iran/Contra, certainly.

Reagan’s mental health and age were an issue all the way back to his first presidential campaign. There were many who claimed that Reagan was too old to be president and that his mind was not up to the task, especially during his re-election campaign in 1984. Reagan famously countered those with things like “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Reagan’s charisma and sharp-witted comments tended to counter any attacks on his mental health.

While the issue did come up during Iran Contra, a lot of folks at the time brushed it off as the President trying to have plausible deniability. This was supported by things like vice-admiral Poindexter testifying that he intentionally did not take certain things to Reagan specifically to insulate him and to protect him from any potential future repercussions.

You can see in this SNL skit from that era that comedians were making fun of Reagan acting a bit clueless at times. The issue was out there all throughout his presidency.


There’s a big difference between people making fun of Reagan’s bumbling and people seriously accusing him of having dementia though. And, while Reagan could be a bit bumbling, he was also very quick-witted (“Honey, I forgot to duck”, for example).

As the OP notes, after Reagan’s presidency and his later diagnosis of dementia, people started looking back on things like Iran Contra and thought that perhaps Reagan really was as forgetful as he had been saying, and perhaps it hadn’t all been political deniability after all.

Even today there is some debate about exactly when Reagan’s dementia symptoms started to become significant. Reagan’s physicians went on record saying that he showed no signs of dementia at all during his presidency. Reagan’s own son Ron claimed that Reagan was starting to have symptoms as far back as his initial presidential election (which Ron later retracted somewhat). Michael Reagan on the other hand has vehemently disagreed with this. And so the debate rages on.

I was asked the other day “When did your dad’s Alzheimer’s start?”
And I said “It’s the Ronald Reagan Syndrome… how can you be certain?”

When does Jes’ Gettin’ Old tip over into Dementia?

I recall it being discussed more during the last year of his holding office when rumors began to surface of Nancy becoming more involved in running the office.

Snopes has a useful summary of what’s known:

If he wasn’t diagnosed until 5 years after leaving office, then it’s unlikely that he was even in early stage Alzheimer’s, judging by the average progression:

When Howard Baker became White House Chief of Staff in 1987, he and his team were informed that Reagan was “inattentive, inept, and lazy”; and they spent their first meeting with him carefully observing him to figure out whether the 25th Amendment would need to be invoked.

In retrospect, it’s possible that the “inattentiveness” was an early stage of dementia. But it might just have been garden-variety inattentiveness. I also doubt that this was made public at the time, though it might have been one source of the rumors.

“Into” his presidency? The guy was clearly out to lunch years before becoming PotUS. He rambled, could only remember a few non-facts off 3x5 cards, was inattentive, etc.

A lot of people covered up for him.

This is general questions, so you really shouldn’t make statements like this with no basis in fact.

Reagan was in a number of debates before and during his Presidency. Say what you will about him (and I’m not a fan) but if you can hold your own in nationally televised debates, alone and unafraid you can’t be “out to lunch” years previously. Later in his second term he undoubtedly had issues, but your comment cannot be supported.

Well I, at least never heard any such rumors, although I was regularly around people who questioned his intelligence. And then there is the point about his believing that he had been in the war, when he had only been in a movie about the war.

Still, when his dementia became public, my brother said, “How could then tell [the difference]?” But this is getting into IMHO territory. I don’t think there were general rumors.

There is a general disconnect between the reporting of the time and what actually happened. In the first Carter-Reagan debate he embarrassed himself multiple times. So I thought “Wow, Carter really won this.” But the headlines the next day were about Reagan’s great performance. No mention of the stupid stuff Reagan said. (And he had the stolen Carter prep manual to help him.)

Another example of Reagan’s mental issues was the big * faux pas* at an early GOP debate where he said “I am paying for this microphone.” Wow, that was clearly going to sink his campaign. Instead it was magically claimed to be a good thing. What the what? How, why???

Remember “Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do.” from 1981? And he was saying stuff like this all the time for years.

In June 1981, Reagan famously mistook his own HUD secretary, Samuel Pierce, for one of the attendees at a luncheon of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. It’s fair to point out that Reagan had been shot three months earlier, spent two weeks in the hospital, and was barely making any kind of public appearances at that point.

Well, Reagan actually stole the line from an old movie, something he did frequently, so it was a calculated play. And, in fact,the Reagan campaign DID pay for the event, therefore, I suppose, the microphone.

We’ll agree to disagree. As I said, I don’t know how a man can stand alone at a podium for 60 minutes and 90 minutes and be many years “out to lunch” but I’m not going to argue. Presumably a majority of the 80 million Americans who watched disagreed with your assessment.

It’s a non-American example, but jokes about Reagan being “senile” or “out-of-it” were commonplace in British satire about his Presidency from very early on.
The obvious example being Spitting Image, the TV puppetry show that started in 1984. From memory, pretty much from the outset they had a recurring set of sketches, framed as a supposed ongoing serial, called “The President’s Brain Is Missing”. In which it was - the joke then being that Reagan’s behaviour was still indistinguishable from how it usually was.
Though I’m not sure many of us watching at the time would have particularly associated that with the label “Alzheimer’s”. But that was still an era where the word “cancer” had very recently been effectively taboo.

Most people develop some minor cognitive decline that isn’t necessarily related to Alzheimer’s or any specific named disorder of any kind, and just is related to aging. Reagan most certainly had that going on, but it probably didn’t manifest in ways that really hurt his abilities to be President. Lots of people in their 70s still have very strong “executive function” (the ability to reason and make decisions), a strong ability to comprehend information and etc. Being a little more forgetful is something that can be pretty easily managed.

Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1994 and died in 2004, while there are cases that go much longer, the average Alzheimer’s patient is dead within 4-8 years of diagnosis, so if Reagan was genuinely experiencing early effects of Alzheimer’s as early as 1979 (when he was running for President), that would be a 25 year disease progression which I think is basically just much longer than we know Alzheimer’s to actually last.

Now, it’s obvious that Alzheimer’s is a gradual disease, and it has to have already been ongoing for some time to reach the level at which it becomes noticeable enough to result in a medical examination/diagnosis, but I just find it very unlikely given our knowledge about the typical course and progression of the disease, that Reagan had Alzheimer’s in any meaningful sense of the word as far back as his first term or his campaign for his first term.