Both Sides Now: Age and Elected Officials

A New York coffee cart displays a photo endorsing US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, Democrat Vermont. The cart is located on Lafayette Street south of Houston Street. An unknown woman is ordering coffee from the vendor. In the background traffic heads north up Lafayette.When Donald Trump took the oath of office in January 2017 at the age of 70, he became the oldest person to serve as President of the United States, surpassing the previous record set by 69-year-old Ronald Reagan and resetting the bar for age limitations on presidential leadership.

Now 72, President Trump has already announced his intention to seek re-election, and many older Democratic challengers have announced their intention to run in 2020 as well. Congressman Bernie Sanders, at 77, is the oldest on the current list of senior citizen candidates, which includes 69-year-old Elizabeth Warren, 68-year-old Jay Inslee, and 67-year-old Jay Hickenlooper. Also rumored to be entering the race is 76-year-old former Vice President Joe Biden. The question of age and leadership is one that has followed Biden throughout his career. When first elected in 1972, he was still a few weeks shy of his 30th birthday, and one of the youngest people ever sworn into the U.S. Senate.

The choice between an older candidate and a younger one often comes down to the individual voter’s priority. Voters who seek stability tend to side with older candidates, while those who are driven most by the need for change gravitate towards younger candidates.

Regardless of voter priorities, the question inevitably arises as to whether a person of advanced age is fit to serve. Here’s a look at both sides.

“Advanced age may render an individual too old for office.”

The medical community has determined that cognitive ability naturally declines as humans get older. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, one in 10 adults over the age of 65 suffers from dementia.

Although most studies show that mental acuity begins to decline after the age of 60, some reports suggest that the brain’s capacity for mem­ory, reasoning, and comprehension begins to deteriorate even sooner, at age 45. If true, this could subject the current crop of younger presidential hopefuls, such as former Congressman Beto O’Rourke (48), Senator Cory Booker (51), Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (53), and Senator Kamala Harris (56) to the same age-based scrutiny as their older counterparts.

More than 75 percent of those surveyed believe that candidates from their own generation would do a better job than those currently serving in Congress. Polls show that younger Americans (ages 15-34) have increasingly expressed a preference for candidates with fresh ideas, rather than older, lifelong politicians.

“Wisdom and more life experience make older candidates appealing.”

In nature, age is often considered an asset, not a liability. A report in Psychology Today pointed out that a herd of elephants will choose the oldest female to guide them through the desert to find water during times of drought. Researchers believe that her wisdom, knowledge, and experience have earned her the trust of the herd, garnering her the leadership role in this life-and-death situation. According to a study by psychologists from the University of Basel and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, older adults not only demonstrated the same decision-making abilities as their younger counterparts, but their ability to draw upon life experience was also seen as an asset when dealing with higher-risk situations.

In fact, when America was founded, youth seemed to be more of a concern than old age. While the U.S. Constitution does not place a maximum age limit on those seeking public office, it does have an established minimum age. Both the president and vice president must be 35 years of age or older when assuming office, a U.S. Senator must be at least 30 years old, and a Representative of the House must be at least 25 years of age when taking the oath of office. Given that the average life expectancy was in the early 40s when the Constitution was ratified, the desire to have government representatives with a substantial level of life experience may have outweighed any concern that they would be too old to fill the role.

Michigan voters seem to be in this camp. Based on recent polls, 76-year-old Joe Biden was named their top choice by 40 percent of Democratic voters surveyed, with 77-year-old Sanders coming in second. Another poll showed that Sanders’ supporters most often name Biden as their second choice, and vice versa.

Final Thoughts

According to a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, different parts of the brain age differently. “At any given age, you’re getting better at some things, you’re getting worse at some other things, and you’re at a plateau at some other things. There’s probably not one age at which you’re peak on most things, much less all of them,” says Joshua Hartshorne, one of the study’s authors. Studies on aging indicate that there are a variety of factors that can influence a person’s cognitive abilities in later life, including diet, genetics, and overall health, so assessing a person’s competency to lead is probably best done on a case-by-case basis.

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This article originally appeared in the March 23, 2019 issue of Wide Angle, our regular newsletter designed, we hope, to inform rather than inflame. Each edition brings you original articles by Common Ground Solutions, a quiz, and a round-up of news items — from across the political spectrum — that we think are worth reading. We make a special effort to cover good work being done to bridge political divides, and to offer constructive information on ways our readers can engage in the political process and make a difference on issues that matter to them.

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