avatarKathleen Murphy

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Does Age Matter in our Presidential Election?

America’s major party candidates are among the oldest ever to serve as POTUS. How old is too old to lead?

Joe Biden: Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America (source: Joe Biden); User:TDKR Chicago 101 (clipping) Donald Trump: Shealah Craighead (source: White House) Сombination: krassotkin, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Comm

The topic of memory has taken center stage recently, as both US Presidential candidates have committed several cringe-worthy gaffes. These mental slip-ups have prompted a raft of speculation about how old is too old to lead our country.

What’s the answer? In a nutshell, it depends. The fact is that cognitive aging shows a huge degree of variability among individuals. While some older adults show big declines over time, others remain as sharp as ever.

We’ve been here before

Before we dive into the cognitive effects of aging, a little background: This isn’t the first time age has been a factor in US elections.

The 1984 Presidential campaign featured Republican Ronald Reagan, age 73, running against Democrat Walter Mondale — a veritable youngster at age 56. During a nationally televised debate, Reagan was asked about his advanced age.

His answer was a zinger. “I want you to know that I will not make age an issue of this campaign,” Reagan intoned gravely. “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

Across the nation, American households howled with laughter. Reagan won a second term in a landslide.

But things have changed a lot since 1984. Despite Reagan’s enduring popularity, there’s now widespread support for imposing presidential age limits. According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, nearly 8 in 10 Americans favor them.

The aging brain

Voters are understandably concerned. Aging can bring many changes in mental functioning — not all of them positive.

While each person is different, research shows aging slows recall and processing speed. That means if you have to remember something for a short time — for example, a six-digit code — you’ll struggle more at age 60 than at 40.

It also means you can expect more moments known as ”tip-of-the-tongue.” This is when you’re trying to come up with a word — often a person’s name — and it remains stuck in your gray matter.

“By the time you are 50, your brain is as crowded with information as the New York Public Library,” explains Arthur C. Brooks in his book From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life. “Meanwhile, your personal research librarian is creaky, slow, and easily distracted. When you send him to get some information you need — say, someone’s name — he takes a minute to stand up, stops for coffee, talks to an old friend in the periodicals, and then forgets where he was going in the first place.”

Why this happens is a topic of controversy. Some say the natural process of aging degrades our ability to access mental associations and make connections. Others argue that because older adults know more, it only makes sense that we have to sift through more data.

Older but wiser

But just as aging brings cognitive challenges, it also brings increased opportunities.

For example, seniors often maintain muscle memory — the ability to perform a previously learned skill. Even after many years, you may find you still know how to do things you learned decades earlier — such as knitting, typing, throwing a perfect spiral, eating with chopsticks, playing the piano, or hitting a golf ball (although, admittedly, your execution might not be what it used to be).

Seniors’ memories also tend to skew optimistic. Researchers point to a 2003 study where younger and older adults viewed a series of images evoking either positive, negative, or neutral feelings.

When the younger adults were asked to recall the pictures, they remembered the positive and negative ones equally. But the older adults recalled twice as many of the positive ones than the negative.

When shown the previously forgotten negative photos, the older adults recognized them easily. The disturbing images weren’t altogether forgotten, but it was the more uplifting ones that remained top of mind.

Another advantage of the older brain may be a wider worldview. In her book This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, author Ashton Applewhite says that older adults have better judgment and emotional control. They can also better read other people’s moods, and more skillfully navigate tricky interpersonal situations (all good skills to have, especially when one has access to the nuclear codes).

Study: Both are super-agers

So what are we to think about the cognitive health of our candidates — Biden at age 81 and Trump at age 77?

Clues may be found in a 2020 study published in the journal Active Aging. For the research, conducted before the last Presidential election, a group of leading physicians and geriatric scientists used publicly available medical records and personal information to scientifically evaluate the health status of each candidate. While both men have aged four years since the study’s publication, two key findings emerged that remain relevant today.

First, researchers said, both Biden and Trump are “super-agers” — people who will likely maintain their mental and physical functioning throughout their lives and live longer than average.

Second, the study suggested that Biden will outlive Trump, even though Biden is three years older. Researchers noted Biden’s “nearly perfect health profile for a man his age,” compared with Trump’s “significant but modifiable” risk factors, including lack of exercise and poor eating habits. Also mentioned was Trump’s coronary artery disease (CAD), which showed a moderate level of coronary plaque, and his elevated risk of late-onset Alzheimer’s disease — a major contributor to his father’s death.

The takeaway

According to study co-author S. Jay Olshanky, a longevity researcher from the University of Illinois Chicago, the discourse around the candidates’ ages conflates age and ability — two very different factors. Instead, the important question to ask when selecting anyone for a position, he says, is whether or not the person is mentally and physically fit for the job.

“We live in an aging society,” he said, “and it’s important that we value, respect, and continue to have a place in our culture for people of all ages.”

Charan Ranganath, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of California, Davis, agrees. As he told the New York Times, “An individual’s age doesn’t say anything definitive about their cognitive status or where it will head in the future. We are due for a national conversation about what we should expect in terms of the cognitive and emotional health of our leaders. And that should be informed by science, not by politics.”

To summarize, there’s much about today’s politics that I find confusing and confounding. But to Professor Ranganath’s point, I have to admit: I heartily agree.

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Aging
Cognition
Alzheimers
Mental Health
Politics
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