Lots of people, including rafts of journalists and tons of Americans polled recently, say they want to put an upper age limit on who can be president of the United States. More than 70 percent of respondents—Democrats, Republicans and independents alike—said in a 2022 poll conducted by CBS News that they want such a limit. (Ironically, fewer than the other age groups, 68 percent of people ages 18-29 wanted limits.)
More recent polls show more than 50 percent of people want age restrictions. Former President Jimmy Carter and Elon Musk have joined countless pundits and pollsters to support an imaginary old age barrier this year.
Questions and answers like this feed the Republicans’ anti-Biden desires perfectly, of course. For those who like simplicity, this kind of numerical thinking, combined with lack of knowledge about aging itself, automatically puts incumbent President and Democrat Joe Biden, age 80, three years “behind” former Republican president Donald Trump, 77.
Fortunately for all of us, an upper age restriction is unlikely to be enacted soon or ever. Establishing an age limit would require a constitutional amendment, which involves a lengthy, complex process, plus a fundamental change in our laws.
“Whatever we think of the wisdom or merits of imposing age maximums for politicians, it would be extremely, extremely difficult to implement at the federal level,” Northeastern University Professor of Law Jeremy Paul was quoted as saying in Northeastern Global News this week.
Age restrictions in employment have been against federal and most state laws since 1967. People over 40 are a “protected class” in our great country, just like women, people of color and others. Old people cannot be forced to retire due only to their age except in a few professions related to skill and safety, like air traffic controllers.
Very few countries have upper age limits for their leaders. The Netherlands is notable for having mandatory retirement for mayors at age 69. Some offices in the U.S. and around the world are said to have term limits instead.
To be truly helpful during the 2024 election season, the poll question shouldn’t be: “Should there be an age limit on people holding the presidency?” It should be: “Why are supposedly reasonable people even asking and answering such a ludicrous question?”
Answer 1: Journalists are often trying to stir up trouble because if it bleeds, it leads, i.e. it gets them attention, which gets them advertisers which gets them money. Many are getting away with bringing up the simplistic yes-no maximum age question without providing enough information to people to give a thoughtful response.
Answer 2: The topic of aging and competence is complex and scientific. Ordinary people are being asked to voice a political opinion based mostly on myths, personal experiences and prejudices, because as of yet they are given little objective information about the rapidly changing topic of aging. Polls based on feelings and hunches rather than information should be ignored.
Asking if an older person should be allowed to be president is like asking if a woman, with special biological and life conditions that might affect her, should be allowed to be chief executive. Media and others dared say or imply in public that women weren’t fit to serve in the White House only decades ago. Some people may still be thinking that or even saying it informally, but they would never propose banning women as public policy these days.
Media and policy people would be wise at this point to hold some forums, publish some books, etc., on age and politics, offering expert commentary on the possible real effects of age on job performance and skills. When lots of people are familiar with facts about both aging and our laws, maybe they can then be asked their opinions about age maximums, and their opinions are more likely to make sense.
I am loathe to repeat current mistaken ideas many people have about aging, for fear of reinforcing them. We’ve all heard some. But I am happy to point out some verified scientific facts instead, starting with information about the small portion of older people who may actually not be qualified to be president:
“In the first nationally representative study of cognitive impairment prevalence in more than 20 years, Columbia University researchers have found almost 10 percent of U.S. adults ages 65 and older have dementia, while another 22 percent have mild cognitive impairment,” according to the Columbia University Irving Medical Center, October, 2022 newsletter.
“Rates of dementia and mild cognitive impairment rose sharply with age” to over 30 percent for people in their 90s.
The Columbia study of 3,500 individuals around the country done 2016-2017 was based on a comprehensive set of neuropsychological tests and in-depth interviews as well as interviews with relatives or close personal contacts.
Asking candidates and office-holders over age 65 to produce an objective medical statement saying that their mental capacity has been thoroughly medically tested and shows no signs of significant impairment would be appropriate. If the person running declines to do that, don’t vote for him or her. Or maybe political parties shouldn’t allow those candidates in their primaries.
Fortunately, the majority of seniors have lots of mental abilities that don’t automatically decline significantly. In addition, various studies have recently found some mental abilities of people over 65 tend to be better than younger people’s, and for many years into old age.
People tend to be better at acquiring and understanding vocabulary every year they age until their 90s. Seniors are also better at ignoring distractions if they want to concentrate on something.
Old people tend to be more resilient than young people, of course. What may upset and stymie a young person is often just another problem to be solved for an older, more experienced senior. Studies show seniors are pretty happy, too, compared to middle-aged people. That helps with seniors’ cognition and problem solving.
A more mysterious tool many older people are said to possess is called “insight.” Scientists at Oxford University describe the insight skill which ordinary seniors were able to use to understandi how they themselves were coping with the pandemic and taking care of themselves. In this example, they used the insight to help younger people figure out how to cope and take care of their own health.
OK, mental acuity is one thing. What about physical health and the presidency? In case of death or incapacity, we have the 25th amendment and the vice president.
Sorry, subjective thinkers, age worriers, and Biden bashers: A slow, careful gait, tripping, and misspeaking from time to time alone are not enough to indicate general cognitive incompetence.
And, there’s good news about life expectancy right now. I looked it up: Biden’s current life expectancy is age 87, and Trump’s is 90. The next presidential term, the last possible for either current frontrunner, ends in 2029—well before then.
So, what should we be focused on with candidates for president, if not numerical age? The answer is both simple and complex and applies to candidates of any age: We should be concerned about their characters, behavior, qualifications and experience and their stands on the issues we care about. If we don’t like what we see and hear, we shouldn’t support the person for office. If we do, we should. Regardless of their age.
Just proposing age as an important candidate quality can actually be dangerous to our democracy. Emphasizing age limits tends to distract and even block people from considering the many more important qualities of presidential candidates named above.
Questioning candidates’ qualifications based simply on a number not only poisons people’s minds about the capacity of older politicians; it also unjustly lowers regard for decisions and actions of older people in general, including family, friends and neighbors.
Promoting upper age restrictions creates doubt about the competency of the 17 percent of Americans who are over 65. It pumps up existing prejudices and fans the embers of old, false beliefs about aging to everyone’s detriment.
Politically speaking and maybe worst of all, it appears that the age restriction suggestion is likely to drive down voter turnout in the ’24 election, especially among Democrats. A young person interviewed on the street on TV said he favors Biden, but he might not vote at all in 2024 because Biden’s too old to be president. I am afraid to guess how many people are thinking like that these days or will in November, 2024, thanks to lack of knowledge combined with all the negative age talk.
Benjamin Franklin was a key contributor to the Declaration of Independence at the age of 70 and to the creation of the U.S. Constitution when he was 81. A champion of the First Amendment, he also came up with the idea of two houses in the legislature. He kept on offering sage political advice and witty remarks to those who sought him out until his death at 84.
Sandee Storey is Publisher Emerita of the Jamaica Plain Gazette.