WashU Experts: Too old to be president?

President Joe Biden speaks. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Some people have raised concerns about the age of President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, who are 80 and 77 respectively, and who are vying to be elected president in 2024. 

Performance and accomplishments matter, but old age should not, per se, said three experts on aging at Washington University in St. Louis. Old age should be something to celebrate rather than denigrate, they argued.

“Our country doesn’t need a president who is physically strong or fast,” said Nancy Morrow-Howell, the Betty Bofinger Brown Distinguished Professor of Social Policy at the Brown School. 

“They’re not going to have to win a foot race or lug heavy things around,” she said. “And they don’t even need great balance to do the important things in the job. People worry about the cognitive abilities of an older president, but only some of those abilities change consistently with age, and they don’t change for everyone. And even when they do, it’s usually very late in life. In any case, few of the critical decisions made at that level require cognitive speed; experience and the acceptance of expert advice are more important.”

Brian Carpenter, a professor of psychological and brain sciences in Arts & Sciences, agreed.

“Like gender, race and ethnicity, age is a real characteristic of a politician that people notice and have opinions about; but chronological age is not on our list of important characteristics,” Carpenter said. “Nor does it correlate with the qualities important for being president. A younger candidate may or may not have the qualities that we value, and an older person might not either.

“Age is not entirely irrelevant to our desired leadership qualities; but we also believe that if it is relevant, it’s because a longer life gives potentially more opportunities for experience, learning and well-developed relationships.”

Natalie Galucia, manager of WashU’s Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging, said it’s true that age correlates with health.

“An older person is more at risk for certain kinds of chronic illness and negative health incidents than a younger person — although health problems in later life are not a given either and can affect a person at any age,” Galucia said. “The risk of dementia also increases with age. And physical and cognitive health does matter if it negatively affects performance of the responsibilities of a political office.”

However, she said, age does not equal physical and cognitive health problems.

“Dementia is not a normal part of aging, and most people in their 80s don’t have cognitive impairment that affects their daily functioning,” Morrow-Howell added. “A person’s health behaviors, like diet, exercise and sleep, and their social support system are also important. White House staff nearby to keep schedules reasonable and self-care practices strong are important, too. We all should be asking, ‘Where do our older candidates stand on these considerations?’”

“People use age as shorthand, usually for negative things like declining strength or reaction time; but age doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about the qualities that really matter in a leader — judgment, emotional stability, humility, morality and human decency,” Carpenter said.

The three experts encouraged people to think about what qualities they want in a leader and then assess the extent to which they’re related to age.

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