Wilson 'may have had Alzheimer's when he resigned'

Harold Wilson may have been suffering the early stages of Alzheimer's disease when he stunned Britain by resigning as Prime Minister, new research suggests.

At the time he said he was simply mentally and physically exhausted, prompting an array of conspiracy theories seeking the real reason for his departure days after his 60th birthday in 1976. But analysis of his speech patterns has found that Wilson may have already been suffering the early stages of the disease which went on to destroy his prodigious memory and powers of concentration.

Dr Peter Garrard, Reader in Neurology at the University of Southampton School of Medicine, reports he has found a decline in mental function in Wilson's final months in Downing Street. He concludes that the onset of the disease could have contributed to Wilson's shock decision to step down as Prime Minister and Labour leader.

Dr Garrard has previously uncovered linguistic changes in the later writings of the novelist Iris Murdoch which pointed to the effects of Alzheimer's. In this new study, he examined Wilson's performances at the Commons dispatch box in the cut-and-thrust of parliamentary debate during his two spells as Prime Minister, in 1964-70 and 1974-76.

His research suggests that during his final months in office Wilson was losing his distinctive voice – seen as an indication the disease was beginning to have an impact on his speech patterns.

Dr Garrard's analysis, published yesterday in the Journal of Neurolinguistics, was based on linguistic techniques used by academics to investigate literary trends and develop theories on the true authors of disputed works.

He said: "Language is known to be vulnerable to the earliest stages of Alzheimer's disease, and the findings of the earlier Iris Murdoch project confirmed that linguistic changes can appear even before the symptoms are recognised by either the patient or their closest associates.

"If such changes are apparent during the effortful and relatively controlled process of creative writing, then the cognitive demands of spontaneous speech production make it even more likely for them to be detectable in spoken output." Wilson's health declined rapidly after his resignation and he was seen less in public. He died of cancer in 1995, aged 79, and was buried in the Isles of Scilly. Wilson won four of the five elections he fought as Labour leader – more than any other Prime Minister of the 20th century. He spent nearly eight years as Prime Minister and another five as leader of the Opposition.

Rebecca Wood, of the Alzheimer's Research Trust, said: "That such a politician, despite his hectic schedule and renowned intellect, could develop Alzheimer's suggests no one is immune. Margaret Thatcher developed dementia after leaving office, and many historians believe Ronald Reagan's Alzheimer's was already present during his second term.

"Both figures had an enormous impact on public awareness of a condition too often swept under the carpet."

Alzheimer's: The facts

*Alzheimer's disease, which affects more than 400,000 Britons, is the most common type of dementia. As it develops, the structure of the brain is attacked and the transmission of messages between different parts of the brain is impaired by a shortage of the right chemicals. In the early stages, sufferers tend to have trouble remembering things and will often spend time searching for words. They may start substituting unusual or incorrect words for ones they have forgotten, or even invent new ones of their own. As the disease progresses, this forgetfulness becomes ever more severe and can lead to extreme confusion. Consequently, people with the illness tend to become withdrawn as they lose their confidence in their ability to act normally. They often experience mood swings, feeling sad or angry about their inability to express themselves in their usual way.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Administrative Assistant / Order Fulfilment

£14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join a thrivi...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

Recruitment Genius: Production Operative

£13000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to a period of sustained an...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there