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How old is too old when it comes to our elected officials?

President Biden is fast approaching 81 years of age. If he is reelected and serves a full second term, he will be 86 years old in January 2029. Mitch McConnell, who is already 81 years of age, serving as the Senate minority leader, has experienced two cognitive incidences, which are suggestive of some type of seizures.  

As many of the most important people in government are well over 70 years of age, this begs the question: are there risks in having such elders in positions of national leadership?

History provides context for how our nation has viewed senior leadership and their age.

The Constitution requires that a person be at least 35 years of age to serve as president. Yet when the Constitution was drafted, a person who was 60 years old was expected to live maybe another 15 years. As of 2020, a man of that age could expect to live another 22 years. Clearly, the writers of the Constitution did not see a need to impose an age upper bound on the highest office in the country.

The oldest person to sign the Declaration of Independence was Benjamin Franklin, at 70 years of age. Moreover, over two-thirds of the signers were under 50 years old, with less than one-quarter of them living to 80 years of age or older. The idea of an octogenarian serving as president was likely unthinkable at that time.  

Historically, 34 of the 46 presidents were under 60 years old at their initial inauguration, with the median age just over 55 years. Yet three of the past seven presidents top the list of the oldest commanders in chief (Joe Biden, Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan).

William Henry Harrison was 68 when he was inaugurated as the ninth president in 1841. His presidency lasted all of one month, as he succumbed to typhoid fever shortly after assuming office. If he had served out two terms, he would have been 76 years of age, making him the oldest of any president until Reagan took office over 140 years later.

To put this into perspective, Dwight Eisenhower (No.34) was the first president to be in office while 70 years of age. Andrew Jackson missed that mark by just 12 days.

The Senate also has a surfeit of seniors. The median age of senators is 65, with 16 of them 75 years of age or older and four topping 80 years of age.

Experience is valuable. People also live longer today, giving everyone a longer runway to contribute to society.

But as the population has aged, so has the incident of dementia and other age-related cognitive diseases. Recall President Reagan’s admission in 1994 that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, just under six years after he left the White House. It is reasonable to believe that its onset occurred while he was still serving as president.

Around 10 percent of people over 70 years of age have some form of dementia. The risk increases with each passing year.

It is difficult to predict the cognitive decline of any person. The challenge is that when a person is in the public eye, it is near impossible to hide such declines. And when such episodes occur, the perception of ineffectiveness and feebleness must be managed, creating a political windstorm that may weaken the perception of our nation.

Moreover, as people age, they are susceptible to numerous other physical ailments, including cancer and cardiovascular diseases.

Age should not disqualify a person for serving our nation. The bigger question is whether a person is capable of the role they are running for. Not every 80-year-old has the same cognitive abilities, physical stamina and energy. Each person must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

The other issue is that people’s health can change, sometimes rapidly. Are there mechanisms in place to ease a person out of their current position who is on the road to becoming incapacitated?  

The health challenges of Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Mitch McConnell have all been in the public eye recently. What has made these events so delicate is that the balance of power in the Senate requires every member to be available for every key vote.

Every older elected official has served our nation with dignity and respect. Unfortunately, time has its way with each of us. No one can escape the aging process, which can strike unexpectedly, and with force that cannot always be predicted.

Does this mean that age limits are needed for our elected officials? What would be more palatable is that such people pass off their baton before the inevitable consequences of age strikes. Without such willingness, we will continue to have ailing elected officials and candidates whose runway to complete their terms are fraught with risks and uncertainty that serves no one’s best interests.   

Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is a professor of computer science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. A data scientist, he applies his expertise in data-driven risk-based decision-making to evaluate and inform public policy.

Tags age limits Alzheimer's disease Cognition Congress Dementia Dianne Feinstein Donald Trump Dwight Eisenhower Joe Biden Mitch McConnell President Ronald Reagan Sheldon H. Jacobson term limits