Second freeze-up sparks renewed questions about Mitch McConnell’s health

By Stephanie Srakocic | Fact-checked by MDLinx staff
Published August 31, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • After briefly freezing up while speaking to the press in July, Mitch McConnell froze and was unable to respond to questions for around thirty seconds while speaking with reporters on Wednesday.

  • These incidents and several falls this spring and summer have led to numerous questions and speculations about the 81-year-old senator’s health.

  • Commonly theorized explanations for McConnell’s freezing include stroke, seizure, head injury, panic attack, medication side effects, and possible neurological conditions.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell appeared to briefly freeze while speaking at an event in northern Kentucky on Wednesday afternoon. The longtime Republican senator was asked a question about running for reelection in 2026. McConnell requested the reporter repeat the question, but then, as seen in footage on local news, he trailed off and stared into the distance for about 10 seconds. At that time, an aide standing with McConnell asked if he had heard the question and repeated it for him. McConnell did answer, and the aide announced to the room that they would “need a minute.” McConnell remained silent for an estimated 30 seconds.[]

McConnell was eventually able to answer two more questions from gathered reporters. He was then slowly led offstage by the aide. He appeared to be having some difficulty speaking.[] 

This incident comes just over a month after a similar occurrence on July 26th when McConnell froze briefly while speaking to Washington, D.C., reporters about the recently passed national defense bill. McConnell froze for about 20 seconds before being led offstage by aides. He returned several minutes later to continue speaking with reporters. At the time, McConnell’s office said he had become “lightheaded.” Later that day, McConnell told reporters he was feeling “just fine” and confirmed he could do his job. 

However, Wednesday’s episode is likely to spark even more questions about McConnell’s health and ability to continue holding his senate seat and party leadership role. The age and health status of many members of the United States government has recently been a topic of national conversation. McConnell, who is 81 and was first elected to the Senate in 1985, has been one of its primary subjects. The longest-serving Senate party leader in history, McConnell has faced numerous health conditions and complications over the past two decades, with many occurring in the spring and summer of 2023. 

McConnell fell twice in March. He stumbled and fell in Helsinki, Finland, while meeting with Finnish President Sauli Niinistö but did not sustain any serious injury. Later in the month, he fell at a Washington, D.C. hotel, resulting in a fractured rib and concussion. His injuries required him to take six weeks away from the Senate. In early, McConnell fell without sustaining injury again, this time while exiting a plane in Washington, D.C. Two of these falls, the Helsinki and D.C. plane fall, were not disclosed to the public until after McConnell’s onstage freezing incident on July 26th.[] 

McConnell’s office did not comment further on the July incident, but theories about what might have caused his freeze-up have been raised in the press and on social media. In July, The New York Times spoke with physicians Jeffrey Saver, MD, a neurologist at the U.C.L.A. School of Medicine, and Lee Schwamm MD, a neurologist and stroke expert at Yale, who suggested that the most likely cause was either “a partial seizure or a transient ischemic attack”. CNN chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta, M.D., theorized that there could have been more minor causes, such as “dehydration or medication side effects,” but agreed a TIA was a possible cause.[][][]

Other common theories have included: 

  • Complications from the concussion the senator sustained in March 

  • An absence seizure

  • Migraine

  • Anxiety and a panic attack 

  • A stroke 

  • A partial stroke

  • The onset of Parkinson’s disease

  • The onset of Alzheimer’s

  • Lewey body disease

Speculations and theories are based on footage of the freezing, McConnell’s age, and what is publically known of his past medical history. Notably, McConnell had polio as a child and acknowledged lingering effects in adulthood, including difficulty navigating stairs. Additionally, McConnell underwent triple bypass heart surgery in 2003 and experienced a fall that resulted in a broken shoulder in 2019.[] 

It’s not known if McConnell saw a physician about July’s episode. After Wednesday’s incident, McConnell’s office again stated that the senator felt “lightheaded” without further details. McConnell’s office said the event was momentary, and he was doing well. However, they also stated that “as a prudential measure, the leader will consult a physician before his next event.”[]

Speaking to local news station WLWT about Wednesday’s freeze-up, John Boockvar, MD, Vice Chair of Neurosurgery at Lennox Hill Hospital, commented:[] 

“I think what’s concerning about this is that in a short period of time, he’s had multiple episodes,” Dr. Boockvar said. “His brain and his body are telling him, and something. I would encourage him to get a full medical workup, including cardiac and neurological, ASAP.” 

Later on Wednesday, McConnell told the press that he was “fine.” He held phone conferences with other members of Republic leadership and then attended an event in Louisville, Kentucky. Those who spoke with him, including South Dakota Senator John Thune, Indiana Senate Candidate, and current State Representative Jim Bank, reported that McConnell sounded and behaved in his typical manner. Both indicated that he was no longer experiencing difficulties speaking. Wyoming Senator John Barrasso was at Wednesday’s event in Kentucky and helped guide McConnell offstage. Barrasso is a physician an orthopedic surgeon by training. He told members of the press that he expected McConnell would make, “a full recovery.”[][] []

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