Biden’s false tales are increasing: Is it a sign of a memory disorder? (2023)

President Biden has a long history of telling embellished, if not outright fabricated, stories, but lately the falsehoods from the president are coming at a rapid rate.

Mental health experts say it might be a sign of confabulation, a neurological disorder linked to dementia.

“Confabulation is most closely associated with dementia-related memory loss,” said Dr. Tanveer Ahmed, a psychiatrist. “You are trying to tell a story, but your brain can’t fill the space, so your brain protects you by making stuff up.”

Dr. Ahmed has not personally assessed Mr. Biden but said, in his view, the evidence is “overwhelming” that Mr. Biden is confabulating.

In a speech this month in Milwaukee, Mr. Biden entertained the audience with previously debunked tales about his grandfather’s death, a conversation with an Amtrak conductor, his father’s education and witnessing a bridge collapse in Pittsburgh.

A week later, Mr. Biden attended a campaign fundraiser where he repeated the debunked Amtrak story and then spun a yarn about his dad and him encountering a same-sex couple in 1960s Delaware. While the story is impossible to prove or disprove, several fact-checkers, including The Washington Post, responded with much skepticism.

While in Hawaii on Monday, Mr. Biden told survivors a story about his house almost burning down with his wife, Corvette and cat still inside. Mr. Biden’s embellished version differed greatly from media reports at the time, which described the fire as a small one contained to the kitchen and under control in roughly 20 minutes.

The overblown stories have generated much criticism from Republicans and others who accuse Mr. Biden of outright lying. They also come as concerns about Mr. Biden’s age plague his reelection bid.

At 80, Mr. Biden is the oldest serving U.S. president and if elected to a second term, he would be 86 upon leaving office.

In an Economist-YouGov poll last month, 45% of independent voters said Mr. Biden’s health and age “severely limit his ability to do the job.” Only 11% of independents said Mr. Biden’s age and health have no impact on his ability to do his job.

A fellow Democrat, Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota, is exploring challenging Mr. Biden for the Democratic presidential nomination, saying Mr. Biden is too old for the job.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment. But when asked about his age, Mr. Biden insists he’s healthy and vigorous enough for a second term.

As if to prove it, the president took a pilates class and a spin class on Wednesday while on vacation at Lake Tahoe, Nevada. Mr. Biden made sure that reporters knew about his exercise session, telling them, “I’ve been working out for the last hour and a half.”

In February, the president’s physician gave him a clean bill after his annual physical. But the five-page report gave no indication that Mr. Biden had undergone any kind of mental cognitive assessments that can detect changes linked to dementia.

During negotiations with the president on spending earlier this year, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy told allies that he found Mr. Biden to be mentally sharp in meetings, The New York Times reported.

Some say Mr. Biden’s repeating of false tales is something voters should be concerned about, for reasons beyond any attempts to deceive the public.

Dr. Carole Lieberman, a forensic psychiatrist and media personality in Beverly Hills, California, who has not personally examined Mr. Biden, agreed the president may be dealing with confabulation. A little-studied neurological disorder, confabulation is a memory error that generates false, fabricated or distorted memories. It is commonly associated with other brain disorders, including dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

“The stories he’s been telling — he doesn’t realize that they’ve been debunked or otherwise he wouldn’t tell them. That is confabulation,” she said. “He’s missing the part of his brain that tells him he shouldn’t say those things because he’s convinced himself those stories are true.”

Confabulation is the creation of false memories in the brain, causing an individual to tell a story that’s untrue. The individual is not trying to deceive people, but rather sincerely believes the story is accurate.

Confabulations can border on the fantastical and bizarre, but are usually just distortions of actual events. It is sometimes referred to as “honest lying” because the individual gains no benefit from telling the false tale.

It usually occurs verbally while a person is talking and their brain is struggling to fill the gaps in a story. As a means to protect itself, the brain creates false memories, experts say.

The percentage of the public dealing with confabulation is unknown, but it is more common in the elderly and people suffering from post-traumatic stress, sleep deprivation, stress or brain injury.

Confabulation is common among people suffering from vascular dementia, a situation in which impaired blood flow to the brain can impact judgment, memory and other thought processes. Mr. Biden has the heart condition atrial fibrillation, which increases the risk of a stroke by five-fold and doubles the risk of dementia.

“We know his medical history. He’s got a history of vascular disease. We have a body of evidence over several years of Biden making cognitive errors. All of that adds up to a high likelihood that he is in the mid-stages of cardiovascular dementia and, as part of that, confabulation may be covering for his memory loss,” said Dr. Ahmed, who is based at the Hills Clinic in New South Wales, Australia.

Kimberly Dodson, a professor of criminology at the University of Houston at Clear Lake, said it’s impossible to know why Mr. Biden repeats the debunked stories. Although she has not examined Mr. Biden, Ms. Dodson said some of his stories sound similar to confabulation.

For example, in Milwaukee, Mr. Biden repeated a story involving former Amtrak conductor Angelo Negri informing him that as vice president, he had flown 1 million miles on Air Force Two, but that was still less than he had traveled on Amtrak.

“True story, I swear to God,” Mr. Biden said after telling the tale.

The story has been widely proven false because Mr. Negri retired from Amtrak in 1992 and died in 2014, two years before Mr. Biden reached 1 million miles on Air Force Two.

It was at least the 10th time Mr. Biden has told the story as president, including one week later at a campaign fundraiser.

“He’s likely repeating this story because he fully believes it,” Ms. Dodson said. “If he is confabulating, he is wholly confident in his recollection and will stick to his guns. You can’t present anyone confabulating with evidence to the contrary because they believe their own reality.”

But in the version of the story Mr. Biden told this month, he seemed to believe Mr. Negri is still alive, saying he wouldn’t mention his name “because we are going to get him in trouble.”

Dr. Lieberman says she sees signs of not just confabulation but possibly dementia in Mr. Biden’s tale about the kitchen fire. The president told the story while comparing his fire to the Maui wildfires, which left at least 115 people dead and hundreds more missing.

“Whether it was true or not, his internal dialogue couldn’t tell himself not to tell the story, which is a sign of dementia,” she said. “To compare your kitchen fire with the tragedy these people went through was beyond insensitive, insulting, demeaning and tone-deaf. That he couldn’t stop himself before he said it makes it worse.”

Other embellishments are less severe. Mr. Biden told the Milwaukee crowd that he witnessed a January 2022 bridge collapse in Pittsburgh, even though he arrived in the city hours after the bridge crumbled.

“Without examining him, I’d say it’s likely that he’s confabulating because he’s not telling the story for any personal gain. Confabulators don’t tell stories for personal gain,” Ms. Dodson said.

Although confabulation can be associated with Alzheimer’s or dementia, it can also be linked to other disorders such as aneurysms, or from severe trauma. Mr. Biden suffered two life-threatening brain aneurysms in 1988. He tragically lost his wife and daughter in a 1972 car crash that left his two sons severely injured. He lost his youngest son, Beau Biden, to a brain tumor in 2015.

Other debunked stories Mr. Biden told recently include telling the Milwaukee crowd that his grandfather died six days after he was born. But public records show he actually died more than a year after Mr. Biden’s birth.

He also told the same crowd that his dad “didn’t have a chance to go to college,” when his father attended Johns Hopkins University for one year.

“These stories really are confabulation because he’s not adding the main story. He is just filling space and it’s almost meaningless to a degree. That is more evidence that this is likely to be confabulation,” Dr. Ahmed said.

• Jeff Mordock can be reached at

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