Dementia and Donald Trump: Why not to diagnose from a distance

Is it true Donald Trump has dementia or Alzheimer's disease? Here's why you should never judge somebody's mental health from afar.

Donald Trump

When dementia makes it onto newspaper front pages, it’s a good idea to approach with caution.

Miracle cures or bogeyman ‘causes’ of dementia are often reported, but the reality of medical research is complex. In recent months we’ve also seen several stories questioning US President Donald Trump's mental fitness.

Armchair diagnoses include cognitive decline, narcissistic behaviour disorder and even early-stage dementia.

‘Does Donald Trump have dementia?’ reads one typical headline, followed by close reading of the President's latest tweets.

If you’re Donald Trump, these stories might comfortably be filed under ‘fake news’. But regardless of how you feel about the President, mixing the medical with the political is a bad idea. In fact, nobody – public figure or not – should have their mental health diagnosed from a distance. Here’s why.

4 reasons NOT to diagnose from afar

1. The diagnosis will probably be wrong

Human behaviours can have many possible causes. This is why we recommend seeking a thorough and professional assessment if you’re worried about your memory.

If somebody is showing signs of confusion, for instance, there are lots of reasons why this could be. Infections, changes in medication, disturbed sleep, depression or stress are a few possible factors.

There are several different types of dementia too, all of which are impossible to diagnose reliably without a person’s consent or cooperation. A professional diagnosis will include a personal ‘history’, as well as physical exams, cognitive tests and a scan of the brain if needed.

Someone who knows the person well can often attend and provide helpful information, as well as support them through the process. In other words, you need both medical expertise and a person’s direct cooperation.

2. It is unethical

Donald Trump may seem unlike other politicians, but he’s not the first to be challenged on mental health.

In 1964, presidential candidate Barry Goldwater was the subject of a magazine article headlined ‘1,189 Psychiatrists say Goldwater is Psychologically Unfit to be President!’ The article hinged on an informal poll of US psychiatrists, none of whom had met the candidate.

Goldwater lost the election, but his campaign successfully sued the magazine for defamation. This landmark case is the reason for the American Psychiatric Association’s Goldwater Rule, which warns psychiatrists in the US against diagnosis from a distance.

The rule states:

‘On occasion psychiatrists are asked for an opinion about an individual who is in the light of public attention or who has disclosed information about himself/herself through public media. In such circumstances, a psychiatrist may share with the public his or her expertise about psychiatric issues in general. However, it is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.’

3. It stigmatises people living with dementia

It's one thing to dislike the things the President says or does, but to attribute Trump’s behaviours to dementia is both hurtful and unhelpful.

This language reinforces the myth that people with dementia are 'crazy' or incapable of making sound decisions.

It also supports the idea that people living with dementia are unfit for work, which may not be the case.

We want a society in which people with dementia feel understood, valued and able to contribute to their community. But to get there we need to stop making assumptions and recognise the many people living well with dementia.

4. It normalises incorrect language

As with any sensitive medical condition, the language we use around dementia is important. There's a long history of mislabeling when it comes to mental health conditions, and casual diagnoses make matters worse.

Words like bipolar and OCD, for instance, are often used outside of a medical context. This creates confusion that impacts people with a formal diagnosis.

This is why we must be extra careful when applying the term dementia. People with the condition need a professional diagnosis so they can access the support they need. A weakened understanding of dementia could put people off seeking medical help.

If someone does have a diagnosis of dementia, we need to still see the person. We should never use their dementia as a label that comes to define them.

Are you worried about someone else's memory problems?

If you're concerned that someone close to you may have dementia, find out how you can help.

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12 comments

Add your own

As a person with Alzheimer's disease, I agree entirely that there can be no connection between President Trump's behaviour and any form of dementia.

Rather than suffering from a brain-damaging disease, Trump is a classic example of extreme narcissism. He behaves like a small child, and for the sake of the human race, I hope that the USA will be able to control him.

Trump is a Great President!

The best! America is great again through his leadership. Anti Trump people could enjoy it instead of wasting their time and effort hating. It is .....hating. That can destroy their "selves" and could be a fore warning of their dementia.

Yeah, we anti-Trump people should really just sit back and enjoy watching our health care being taken away. It's unending fun.

Especially those of us with pre-existing conditions - like dementia.

Lay off the meth or crack

No we can't control him. He has the launch codes. Prepare your Fallout Vault. Pack it full of ethical psychiatrists and get ready to live in hell with them.

And with ethical medical professionals...

I'm stunned that a Google search of the words "Trump" and "dementia" brings up over 31,000,000 search results, including this article on alzheimers.org.uk. I'm of the opinion that Trump suffers frontotemporal dementia. The symptoms include:

Speech which is fluent but empty of actual meaning.
Fixed mood and behaviour, appearing selfish and unable to adapt to new situations.
Loss of empathy, emotional warmth and emotional responses.
Loss of normal inhibitions, exhibiting embarrassing behaviour.
Difficulty in reasoning, judgement, organisation and planning.
Distractibility and impulsiveness.
Changes in eating patterns, craving sweet foods, overeating or unusual food preferences.
Here's the article: https://www.dementia.org.au/information/about-dementia/types-of-dementi…

Seriously, I think this sounds exactly like Trump! I'm not political and I dislike him mainly because he's such an embarrassment.

Heather, you are 100 % correct. Its not a opinion , these are sheer facts that Trump shows all signs of early stages dementia.

I certainly believe that a diagnosis of dementia in a sitting President disqualifies him from office. Dementia certainly does render him unfit for work.

Go look at one of donald’s interviews from the 90’s and compare it to how he talks today.

There is indisputable mental decline.

donald’s father died from Alzheimer’s disease. He is slowly following in his fathers footsteps.

I disagree. For one, Donald Trump can be analyzed far better and more accurately than any patient - patients can lie and recognize they are being monitored. Patients are seen in clinical settings. Patients are dealt with in shorter time periods...

Meanwhile, we have enough video, speeches, actions, etc. of Trump to fill thousands of hours. NO psychiatrist has ever had access to analyze a patient anywhere near as effectively as they could with Trump, given his ever-presence.

And unethical? That certainly is debatable. I would say it unethical to ignore the possible decline in the mental capacity of the most powerful human being alive, with the world's second largest nuclear arsenal literally within arms reach.

I can understand fears of 'stigmatism' but those are easily overridden by context in this situation - any negative stigmas arising from trying to determine the mental health of the President of the United States is an issue of national security. The possible ramifications from the development of, say, Alzheimer's in Trump (which killed his father) is IMPERATIVE. I lost my own grandmother to the disease - it was horrendous, it took years and as it set in occasional acts or unprovoked, random violence or impulsive, dangerous actions took place. This shouldn't be stigmatized, but it still should be seen for what it is: something that we can't allow a sitting POTUS to have!

I find it unethical not to engage in analyzing the current POTUS if you are a trained psychologist, therapist, doctor, neurologist, psychology professor, etc. Not doing so endangers democracy, millions of lives, the global economy, the future of the climate...

And, by the way, while professional ethics such as confidentiality are important, that really... isn't ethics. Psychiatrists, psychologists... are not ethicists and are not trained in metaphysics (which is the field of philosophy studying ethics). Your professional association came up with that reasoning - and there is no reason to take it on faith or blindly accept it by refusing to question your own ethical values and beliefs...

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