Should a presidential candidate’s age matter?

Liz Seegert

About Liz Seegert

Liz Seegert (@lseegert), is AHCJ’s topic editor on aging. Her work has appeared in NextAvenue.com, Journal of Active Aging, Cancer Today, Kaiser Health News, the Connecticut Health I-Team and other outlets. She is a senior fellow at the Center for Health Policy and Media Engagement at George Washington University and co-produces the HealthCetera podcast.

President Trump is the record holder for becoming the oldest president at age 70.

If you’ve been watching the Democratic debates (and even if you haven’t), you know several candidates running for president in 2020 are 70 or older.

While there is a minimum age requirement to hold office, there is no upper limit. Should there be, given how physically and mentally grueling the job of president is? (Just look at before and after photos.) Is 75, or 80, or 85 too old to be president?

The short answer is “no,” according to a new white paper from the American Federation for Aging Research (AFAR). In a detailed analysis that estimates longevity and survival probabilities of White House office seekers, they concluded age is not a relevant factor in judging the fitness of presidential candidates to hold the nation’s highest office.

“Our concept of what old is, has changed considerably,” said lead author S. Jay Olshansky, Ph.D., an aging researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health and AFAR board member, in a phone interview.  “These folks really should not be considered any differently than anyone else”

President Trump is the record holder for becoming the oldest president at age 70, but in this  election, someone is likely to break that record, Olshansky said.

Four of the leading contenders in both parties are in their 70s: former Vice-President Joe Biden (76), and Senators Bernie Sanders (77) and Elizabeth Warren (70) on the Democratic side, and Republican incumbent Donald Trump (now 73), Overall, seven of the 27 candidates in the race would be aged 70 and older on inauguration day in January 2021, increasing the odds that the oldest person ever elected president could be sworn into office that day.

S. Jay Olshansky

“I didn’t see anything in either of the debates that would lead me to believe that age is relevant in any way. I know people are looking for something, some flubs that you might experience either as a younger candidate, or an older candidate; is somebody’s memory not as good as it used to be,” Olshansky said.

The analysis used data from national vital statistics to estimate life span, healthspan (years of healthy living), disabled lifespan, and four- and eight-year survival probabilities for U.S. citizens with attributes matching those of all 27 candidates for the next two election cycles. Obtaining medical records of each candidate was not feasible, so the study relied on complete period life tables and by gender and single year of age, up to 100, based on statistics reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There’s been considerable discussion and media attention — like this article in New York Magazine, and this one in Mother Jones — about the role age plays in deciding whether a candidate is fit to be president. According to June 2019 Economist/YouGov tracking poll only 3% of Democrats surveyed said the ideal candidate was in their 70s; 37% want a president in his or her 50s, while nearly three in ten (29%) prefer someone in their 40s.

The scientific answer, according to the study, is that “chronological age itself should not be used as a sole disqualifier to run for or become president. However, the probability of health issues increases as we get older. “That’s the reality of human aging, and our bodies wear out; our minds don’t operate as efficiently as before. There’s a lot of variability around that, of course,“ Olshansky said.

The good news is our concept of what “old age” should be is changing. There’s no reason why an Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden can’t be president, he said. “They are extraordinary people. And it doesn’t matter that they’re in their 70s. It should be completely irrelevant.”

On the flip side, “experience is important, but age doesn’t necessarily equal experience, Sometimes, life experiences outweigh age,” said Jason Mollica, a professor at American University’s School of Communications. He pointed to Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s background serving in the military as something that might help him make decisions differently than someone who did not serve.

The minimum age requirement was enacted to ensure the voting public had enough information, and the candidates brought enough experience and wisdom with them to be president. If that’s the criteria that’s being used, then perhaps the most qualified candidates are the older candidates, according to Olshansky. “The shift in the ages of the presidential candidates is sort of a classic reflection of what we’ve done to ourselves as a society, it’s a good sign.”

The study points out that regardless of chronological age, these candidates are part of the subgroup of the population that has access to wealth, education, and access to excellent health care. This group is likely to live healthier and longer lives. “It’s exactly the kind of thing that we would like to have for the rest of us. The benefits come in ways of better physical functioning, better mental functioning, longer life spans, longer health spans,” Olshansky said.

“The American people must decide whether any of these candidates have the mental and physical capacity to be president,” Mollica said.

What about releasing candidates’ medical records, assuming they waive HIPAA’s privacy protections?

“You get onto a slippery slope,” he explained. “We need to reassure the world our president is fit and strong, with a sound heart and mind. But, we don’t need to know every single medical detail or what they eat for breakfast.” He predicted that, in this polarized day and age, someone will find something to criticize, even if a neutral third party conducted a health exam.

Anyone able to handle the rigors of the campaign trail is likely already fit for office, according to Olshansky. It’s also likely some of these older candidates could be super agers.

Some people look at age as a proxy for viability, but it shouldn’t matter, as “Mayor Pete” pointed out during the July 30 debate. “I don’t care how old you are. I care about your vision.”

Journalists:

  • Do the voters in your community think age is a positive or negative factor in the election?
  • Do they think candidates should be required to release health records or undergo cognitive evaluations to hold office?
  • When is someone too old (or too young) to hold office?

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