Executive dysfunction, brain aging, and political leadership

Politics Life Sci. 2014 Fall;33(2):93-102. doi: 10.2990/33_2_93.


Decision-making is an essential component of executive function, and a critical skill of political leadership. Neuroanatomic localization studies have established the prefrontal cortex as the critical brain site for executive function. In addition to the prefrontal cortex, white matter tracts as well as subcortical brain structures are crucial for optimal executive function. Executive function shows a significant decline beginning at age 60, and this is associated with age-related atrophy of prefrontal cortex, cerebral white matter disease, and cerebral microbleeds. Notably, age-related decline in executive function appears to be a relatively selective cognitive deterioration, generally sparing language and memory function. While an individual may appear to be functioning normally with regard to relatively obvious cognitive functions such as language and memory, that same individual may lack the capacity to integrate these cognitive functions to achieve normal decision-making. From a historical perspective, global decline in cognitive function of political leaders has been alternatively described as a catastrophic event, a slowly progressive deterioration, or a relatively episodic phenomenon. Selective loss of executive function in political leaders is less appreciated, but increased utilization of highly sensitive brain imaging techniques will likely bring greater appreciation to this phenomenon. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was an example of a political leader with a well-described neurodegenerative condition (cerebral amyloid angiopathy) that creates a neuropathological substrate for executive dysfunction. Based on the known neuroanatomical and neuropathological changes that occur with aging, we should probably assume that a significant proportion of political leaders over the age of 65 have impairment of executive function.

Keywords: Executive function; brain aging; cerebral microbleeds; frontal lobe; prefrontal cortex; presidential disability.

MeSH terms

  • Administrative Personnel / psychology*
  • Aging*
  • Executive Function*
  • Humans
  • Leadership*
  • Politics*
  • United States