Joe Biden: mental health and memory explained, age, Robert Hur report - and Beau Biden death 'gaffe'

Biden was visibly angry when denying he had forgotten the date his late son died
Watch more of our videos on Shots! 
and live on Freeview channel 276
Visit Shots! now

Long-standing concerns over US President Joe Biden’s age and memory have intensified following the release of a special counsel’s report investigating his possession of classified documents.

The report, which was published on Thursday (8 February), described the 81-year-old Democrat’s memory as “hazy”, “fuzzy”, “faulty,” “poor”, and having “significant limitations.” It said that Biden could not recall defining milestones in his own life.

In response, Biden denied claims that his memory was poor. “My memory is fine,” he said from the White House, and grew visibly angry in denying that he had forgotten when his son died; Beau Biden died of brain cancer in 2015 at the age of 46.

"Frankly, when I was asked the question, I thought to myself, it wasn’t any of their damn business," he said. "Every Memorial Day we hold a service to remember him, attended by friends and family and people who loved him."

He added: "I don’t need anyone, I don’t need anyone to remind me when he passed away.”

Describing the report’s descriptions of his memory as “extraneous commentary”, Biden said he is “the most qualified person in this country to be president”.

But even as he defended himself, he committed another gaffe while discussing the Israel-Hamas War, mistakenly referring to Egypt’s leader Abdel Fattah El-Sissi as “the president of Mexico”.

The report’s assertions about his memory could undermine his message to voters that he can manage the government and safeguard the country.

Voters are already going into this year’s election with severe misgivings about the president’s age having scrutinised his gaffes, coughing, slow walking, and even a summer tumble off his bicycle.

So just how is the president's health as he enjoys his 82nd year of life? Here is everything you need to know:

(Photos: Getty Images)(Photos: Getty Images)
(Photos: Getty Images)

What did the report say?

Thursday's report from Robert Hur was released primarily as the result of an investigation into Biden’s handling of sensitive government materials.

It gives a harshly critical assessment of the president's actions, but also details the reasons why he should not be charged with the crime, claiming the 81-year-old president would be too feeble to prosecute for "a serious felony that requires a mental state of wilfulness."

“He did not remember when he was vice president, forgetting on the first day of the interview when his term ended (‘if it was 2013 — when did I stop being Vice President?’), and forgetting on the second day of the interview when his term began (‘in 2009, am I still Vice President?’),” the report says.

“He did not remember, even within several years, when his son Beau died.”

What has Biden said?

A letter from the president’s lawyers, written on 5 February and published in the report, said its treatment of Biden’s memory was neither “accurate or appropriate” and had no place in a Department of Justice report.

“The report uses highly prejudicial language to describe a commonplace occurrence among witnesses: a lack of recall of years-old events," it said.

The letter argues that Biden’s “inability to recall dates or details of events that happened years ago is neither surprising nor unusual,” particularly about when certain documents were packed or moved.

It is not unusual for the subjects of government investigations to say they don’t recall an event or a conversation in order to avoid issues such as perjury. The special counsel did not release the transcript of the interviews with Biden, so some context is unclear.

Former president Donald Trump, the current Republican front-runner, has boasted of his own vast memory but has also at times said in legal proceedings that he does not recall certain events.

Is he ill?

The prevalence of cognitive or memory problems increases with age, and it is not uncommon for individuals in their 80s to experience some degree of cognitive decline. However, the extent and impact of such decline can vary widely among individuals.

While many older adults maintain good cognitive function and memory, some may experience mild cognitive impairment or more severe conditions such as Alzheimer's disease.

It's essential to note that age alone is not a determinant of cognitive ability, and there is considerable variability in cognitive health among people of the same age group.

Whether cognitive or memory problems would affect one's ability to hold office as the President of the USA would depend on the severity of the issues and their impact on decision-making, judgement and overall cognitive function.

Biden has previously been open about his experiences with a stutter and how he has worked to manage it, speaking publicly about his childhood experiences, including instances of being mocked and teased by classmates.

Over the years, Biden has employed various strategies to overcome his stutter and improve his speech. He has mentioned that practising poetry and reading out loud were among the techniques that helped him gain more control over his speech.

But, while the president appears to the casual observer to have overcome his issues with stuttering, it could be that his impediment is still causing him trouble, particularly at times of stress - such as making a public address or delivering a speech.

Stress can also contribute to other speech-related challenges, such as word retrieval difficulties or the use of incorrect words.

When under stress, individuals may experience cognitive pressure that affects their ability to select and produce words accurately. This can result in the substitution of words, the use of synonyms or other verbal mistakes.

In an article published in January 2021, said: "If we watch Biden speaking during the presidential debates, we can observe moments when his voice and sound production stops suddenly.

"At those moments, his eyes squeeze shut as his effort to produce the awaited sound increases. At other moments, he seems to rapidly repeat a sound segment or quickly switch a word or rephrase his thought."

However, as far back as 2019, Biden said that stuttering wasn't to blame for a string of verbal mistakes made in the 2020 campaign.

"I'll find myself searching for a second" to find the words," he told Axios on HBO, but "I've always attributed that to being tired and not to the stutter."

Comment Guidelines

National World encourages reader discussion on our stories. User feedback, insights and back-and-forth exchanges add a rich layer of context to reporting. Please review our Community Guidelines before commenting.