What about the lifespans of previous presidents? Do they inform us about the prospects for today's candidates? Not really. Comparisons are confounded by the acceleration of life expectancy from 40 years, which, as noted, was common in early America. Although all past presidents beat age 40, their ages at death were wide-ranging. Excluding John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated at 46, their lifespans ranged from 53 years (James K. Polk) to 94 years (George H. W. Bush).
Of the 44 U.S. presidents (Grover Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms) 33 were less than age 60 when they took the office--and only one, Donald Trump, over age 70 (70 years, 7 months, 7 days).
Yet, only 12 of the 24 presidents prior to 1900 lived beyond age 70: John Adams-90, Thomas Jefferson-83, James Madison-85, James Monroe-73, John Quincy Adams-80, Andrew Jackson-78, Martin Van Buren-79, John Tyler-71, Millard Fillmore-74, James Buchanan-77, Rutherford B. Hayes-70 Grover Cleveland-71
Of the sixteen presidents since 1900 now deceased only six lived beyond age 80: Herbert Hoover-90, Harry Truman-88, Richard Nixon-81, Gerald Ford-94, Ronald, Reagan-93, George H. W. Bush-94.
While the public may fear that an elderly president might not live through his or her term in office, more worrisome is the prospect of an older president maintaining health, particularly mental acuity, in order to carry out the demanding duties of the Oval Office. Are these legitimate concerns?
Despite ageist stereotypes, the vast majority of older Americans remain active and productive members of society. And most older Americans are relatively healthy; 95 percent of those over age 65 live independently in the community. Add to that a finding reported in the Journal of clinical psychiatry that older adults scored higher on psychological well-being than young and middle-aged adults.
For the last two decades, I have been a producer and host in a video production company that creates short documentaries("Active Aging Stories") about extraordinary seniors. They teach us that passion, creativity, and zest for living have no age limit and are available to everyone. For example, ninety-two-year-old documentary filmmaker George Stoney was still teaching full-time at New York University (NYU) and inspiring young filmmakers. Edith O'Hara founder of the 13th Street Repertory Company in New York City continued her passion for theater in her ninth decade. Pete Seeger confirmed that aging did not interrupt his creativity and passion for music. One of our producers, Rita Satz, a former producer, writer, and investigative reporter at WNBC news, registered for a poetry workshop at age 90 where she wrote poems for the first time. Two years later her book of poetry, There You Are, was published by a commercial press.
Yet aging is a risk factor for a host of illnesses, including Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia. And vulnerability to diseases increases with each decade after age 60. But can we be assured that younger presidents would have better physical and mental health than older ones? In fact, at least ten past presidents who were less than age 70 when elected were known to suffer serious illnesses while in office. Several tried to hide their illnesses, suggesting that other Presidents in addition to these 10 may have successfully concealed health problems.
Of the 10, 9 were less than age 65 and six of these less than age 60. The array of their illnesses included obesity, nephritis, high blood pressure and heart problems, strokes, mental disorders, paralysis, Crohn's disease, Addison's disease, and hyperthyroidism.
All previous presidents were men. Does the fact that females in the US live on average five years longer than males suggest that women candidates may be better bets for health and longevity in the oval office?
In the final analysis, though, we may never know how long a person will live, or who will suffer a debilitating or catastrophic illness. All we can be sure of is the present moment--the here-and-now, the great equalizer that belongs to everyone.