Mental limitations of government officials primarily caused by aging can be hazardous to the protection of U.S. secrets, according to a Pentagon-commissioned RAND Corp. study.
Dementia’s effects on government leaders weren’t talked about much in the past.
General physical fitness was an issue with Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy’s people were careful to hide his serious health problems.
Some were concerned about President Ronald Reagan’s cognitive abilities late in his second term, although his mental decline apparently was not fully evident until after a post-retirement ranch mishap.
But now it’s impossible to avoid the apparently age-related mental limitations of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, 81; Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, 90; and, of course, President Joe Biden, 80.
Meanwhile, 54-year-old Democratic Sen. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania also displays cognitive problems stemming from a stroke.
There is a growing risk for U.S. secrets as people are living and working longer, according to the RAND study, titled “Could Dementia in the National Security Workforce Create a Security Threat?”
The study was focused on non-elected government employees, especially those with access to state secrets.
“Two trends might contribute to a new type of national security threat: 1) People are living longer, and 2) people are working later in life,” it said.
The average U.S. age of death has increased from 73.7 to 78.7 since 1980, a full five-year gain, the study said. As of 2019, a fourth of individuals over age 65 were still working; in 2018, 29 percent of people between the ages of 65 and 72 were working or looking for work.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, according to RAND, and “the number of people with Alzheimer’s disease doubles about every four to five years after age 65.”
“An estimated one third of adults aged 85 and older might have Alzheimer’s disease,” the report said. (A definitive diagnosis of Alzheimer’s requires an autopsy.)
What’s the government to do if dementia begins to affect those who handle government secrets?
“The risk that an individual becomes a national security threat because of dementia symptoms depends on many factors, such as the nature of the classified information they hold, for how long the unauthorized disclosure of that information could cause damage (including serious or exceptionally grave damage), and whether the individual is targeted by an adversary,” the report said.
Increasing the risk is the number of veterans who have had traumatic brain injuries or who suffer from PTSD. Some retire from the military and take sensitive government civilian jobs, RAND noted.
PTSD is considered a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. Brain injuries — a frequent result of Iraq and Afghanistan combat — can lead to mild cognitive impairment, the study said.
Given federal preference to hire veterans coupled with age discrimination laws, the RAND study is quick to point out that “this is about managing dementia, not age,” noting that for the most part mandatory retirement age is illegal.
A positive is that much government secret-handling is done by individuals at higher education levels, and the mental complexities of the work can strengthen cognitive ability, according to the study.
Nevertheless, RAND identified possible ways to identify risks to government secrets and developed a matrix to help managers determine levels of required intervention.
The intervention — identified in the matrix as “intrusiveness” — ranged from educating a worker’s colleagues on how to determine early signs of dementia or mild cognitive impairment all the way to health tests and recommendations the employee retire to an assisted living facility.
A risk is for federal employees suffering from dementia and possessing critical government secrets to unwittingly reveal that information, even in retirement.
On a related note, the apparent mental limitations of people such as Biden, Feinstein and McConnell are bringing about suggestions of upper age limits for certain elected offices, an idea with precedence in the U.S. Constitution given certain minimum age requirements.
The RAND Corp. report said nothing about that.
However, Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley has called for cognitive testing for elected federal officeholders above the age of 75.
With one-tenth of Congress above that age, “America is not past its prime; it’s just that our politicians are past theirs,” she said in February.
America is not past its prime—our politicians are past theirs.
We need term limits, and we need them now. pic.twitter.com/stymXtF9pF
— Nikki Haley (@NikkiHaley) February 16, 2023
Former President Donald Trump concurred, adding that physical tests also should be given at all ages.
“Being an outstanding President requires great mental acuity & physical stamina,” the 77-year-old Trump said in a Feb. 21 post on Truth Social. “If you don’t have these qualities or traits, it is likely you won’t succeed.”
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