Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), appearing to have a medical emergency, had to be escorted from the podium after freezing mid-sentence during a July 26 press conference. The senator later returned to answer questions about his health and other matters. Source: Screenshot of July 26, 2023 C-SPAN footage
Recent health incidents involving Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) are raising questions about whether there should be an age cutoff for politicians. Many pundits (and most Republicans) are highlighting President Biden’s age as he runs for re-election in 2024.
An AP-NORC poll recently found that most Americans regardless of political party think Biden is “too old” to run for office again. While former president Donald Trump is only a few years younger than Biden, age seems to be less of an issue in his campaign (although he certainly has his share of issues to overcome).
Not so fast, argue some longevity experts. Biden and Trump are likely “super-agers,” those people who are fortunate to be in excellent health and have good cognitive function later in life. Age should only be one of many factors that impact whether a political figure — or really anyone — should continue their job. And just how the media covers “the age issue” needs to be balanced with that person’s ability, transparency about related health concerns and without age bias.
That’s the focus of AHCJ’s upcoming webinar on Sept. 14 at 2 p.m. ET: “How old is too old? It depends on whom you ask.” The discussion features longevity researcher S. Jay Olshansky, Ph.D., who, along with his colleagues, analyzed the first Biden-Trump matchup in 2020.
Because of a lack of comprehensive candidate medical records, they looked at lifespan, health span, disabled lifespan, and four-year survival likelihood for Americans that matched those of the candidates and the sitting president for the next two election cycles. The conclusion: “Results suggest that chronological age should not be a relevant factor in the forthcoming election.”
Does the same hold true four years later? Yes and no, according to Joanne Kenen, Commonwealth Fund Journalist in Residence at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and contributing editor to Politico Magazine, Politico “Nightly” and KFF’s What the Health podcast. Reporting on the health of older candidates is critical, as is reporting on the health of younger politicians with health issues, like Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) or Sen. John Fetterman (D-Penn.).
Age is an important factor in health, and chronic conditions are more prevalent among older adults. But we need to be cognizant of how we, as journalists, report about those issues without resorting to ageist tropes or assuming everyone who reaches a certain age is automatically unqualified. Kenen, who covered health for Reuters on Capitol Hill for more than a decade, as well as two national presidential campaigns, said that sitting legislators like Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), 85, and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who turns 90 on Sept. 17, currently serve well in their roles, and are older than 81-year-old McConnell.
The Senate Majority leader’s recent on-camera “freeze-ups” prompted widespread speculation about possible traumatic brain injury after he was hospitalized for a serious fall earlier this year. His office released a letter from the Capitol physician on Sept. 5 which said there was no evidence of a stroke or seizure.
However, we still don’t exactly know what is going on or just how serious that prior fall was. Could age be a factor? Certainly. Older people are more prone to serious falls due to balance or vision problems. But younger people with traumatic brain injuries, including athletes, can also have issues with cognition or suffer from seizures.
Age is one of many concerns permeating health coverage, and it’s crucial to frame it in context when reporting on older candidates or officeholders. And, if we set an age limit for officeholders, should we do the same for other occupations?
How old is too old? Register here for the Sept. 14 webinar to find out.