Super Cities №251—How Old is Too Old?

Brendan Hart

If we are to believe polls, the next president will be one of four Americans: Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, or Elizabeth Warren.

This is quite something because, on January 20th, 2021, Trump will be seventy-five; Biden will be seventy-eight; Sanders will be seventy-nine; and Warren will be seventy-one.

Life expectancy in the United States is 78.6 years.

Being President of the United States is, arguably, the most demanding job in the world. It requires an incredible range of skills. To do the job well, the person must possess a remarkable level of intellectual, emotional, and psychological stamina.

Most prime-aged people would wither under its demands. One stable genius currently does.

Given the position's demands, should Americans consider age when voting?

We already do. That’s why presidential candidates must be at least thirty-five years old.

But how old is too old?

One could argue that, as the country ages, an older president represents an important constituency. Who better to fight against raising the retirement age than someone who, were he or she out of office, would be fifteen years into retirement?

Another approach would be to look at the skills required to do the job well.

At a minimum, the best leaders, regardless of age, possess two interconnected skill sets: strong executive functions and memory. Executive functioning describes one's ability in "taking the time to think before acting; meeting novel, unanticipated challenges; resisting temptations; and staying focused." Memory is "the power or process of reproducing or recalling what has been learned and retained."

According to one study, cognitive function — the combination of executive function and episodic memory — becomes below average around age sixty. The decline speeds up after people turn seventy.

According to an NIH study, starting around 60, a person’s processing speed of new information declines rapidly. By eighty, processing speed is a full standard deviation from the average adult.

Part of the challenge is auditory. By age 80, seven-out-of-ten Americans have measurable hearing loss. The most noticeable changes are declines in performance on “complex attentional tasks such as selective or divided attention.” People cannot learn or consider what they cannot hear or otherwise process.

Then there is the issue of clear communication. The same report states that, on average, people eighty-plus can recall roughly half the number of words as people between the ages of 30 and 44. Americans are subject to this travesty every day.

Cognitive decline is a fact of life. It is a natural process that no one can escape. While no doubt challenging, many people and their families develop strategies to diminish the risks of cognitive decline.

As a society, we honor our aging parents, grandparents, and loved ones through robust medical care and acts of charity and community service.

But honoring our elderly does not mean asking them to do the world’s most challenging job. In fact, I would argue, many of our most admired presidents — Kennedy, TR, Obama — were beloved because of their relative youth.

As a society, especially in times of uncertainty, perhaps we are overconfident in older people.

Perhaps it is time to ask younger people to do more. Like, y'know, serve as Commander in Chief.

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