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How Old is Too Old to Run for President? A Gerontologist Ponders This Critical Question for the 2020 Election

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John Glenn returned to space at age 77
John Glenn returned to space at age 77
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Now that several septuagenarian seniors are in the 2020 race for president, people are wondering how old is too old to run for the highest office in the land.

The current top two Democratic contenders are Joe Biden age 76 and Bernie Sanders age 77. President Donald Trump, whom they hope to beat, is age 72. Elizabeth Warren will be 69 on June 22, 2019. If elected president she would be 70, closing in on 71, when sworn in at 12 noon on Wednesday, January 20, 2021.

Since many pensions, benefits, and entitlements kick in at sixty-five, that age is historically the demarcation for "old" most often cited in statistical tables.

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Does this make sense?

Traditional markers are getting blurred. In colonial times in America through 1850 average life expectancy from birth was about 40 years . That increased to 50 years by 1900--slightly higher for women than men. Over the next century, a longevity revolution added an astonishing 50 percent to life expectancy. The average today is 78.6 (76.1 for men and 81.1 for women). And growing numbers are living into their 90's and beyond. In fact, centenarians are so commonplace that news about them is no longer news; they are upstaged by supercentenarians, age 110 plus.

The impressive gains in longevity are not from any dramatic scientific breakthroughs but rather as a result of public health measures such as better nutrition, clean water, improved sewage and waste disposal and, most importantly, the introduction of vaccines and antibiotics. With laboratories around the globe working on breaking a possible genetic aging code and unraveling the mystery of why cells age, further gains in longevity are likely over the coming decades.

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Consider also the difference between chronological age and "real age." What does a number mean if your organs, brain, and body chemistry are like those of a much younger person? Confusing the issue of how old is old are reports of seniors blasting off into space, climbing Mt. Everest, jumping out of airplanes, and other feats usually thought to be exclusive to younger generations.

What about appearance? If you look younger does that mean you are younger? Possibly, but appearances can be deceptive. Hair transplants, cosmetic surgery, and other "anti-aging" procedures can camouflage signs of health issues and decline.

Could a person's nutrition be a better predictor of health and longevity than chronological age? If so, dinner plates may be more telling than physical appearance. Should we be happier with a vegetarian presidential candidate than with one addicted to Big Macs and fried chicken no matter the chronological age?

I recently interviewed eminent biologist Dr. Leonard Hayflick, who is known for his pioneering telomere research that set the limit for human lifespan at about 120 years. Dr. Hayflick, robust and professionally active at age 88, expects many more productive years based on the one undisputed principle for assuring longevity: Pick your parents very carefully. His mother died at age 106.

Still, counting on how long someone will live may be a losing bet.

When lawyer Andre-Francois Raffray bought 90-year-old Jeanne Calment's apartment in Arles, France in 1965 in a reverse mortgage type arrangement for possession on her death, he thought he snared a slam dunk deal that he would soon cash in on. Not so. He made payments up until he departed at age 77, more than a year before Jeanne died at age 122.

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Like Raffray's miscalculation, making age a political issue can prove a fatal mistake. When South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond ran for re-election in 1984 at the ripe age of 83, his much younger opponent, Melvin Purvis, made age the centerpiece of his campaign. Thurmond won with 67 percent of the vote and two years later Purvis died of a heart attack at age 46. Strom continued to strum along after winning two more elections. He died at age 100 in 2003. If the number of remaining years in a person's longevity account is the actual determination of young or old then Strom Thurmond was a much younger man than Melvin Purvis during their Senate race.

In 1984 73-year-old presidential candidate Ronald Reagan upended the age issue during his debate with 56-year-old Democratic candidate Walter Mondale. Flashing his signature smile, Reagan declared, "I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."

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Bernard Starr, PhD, is a psychologist/gerontologist, and professor emeritus at CUNY, Brooklyn College where he directed a graduate program in gerontology. He is the founder, and for twenty-five years the managing editor, of the cutting edge (more...)

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Bernard Starr

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Those who reach the senior years are living longer, healthier, and more active lives than in previous generations.

Submitted on Tuesday, May 14, 2019 at 3:11:40 PM

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David Wieland

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At 73, I have a keen interest in this topic. I remember reading in the last few months that one's odds of dying in the next year drops somewhat after 100 (I think it was). Isn't that a fun fact?

Regarding diet, it's certainly believable that nutrition is a significant factor, although vegetarianism is no guarantee of good nutrition.

Submitted on Wednesday, May 15, 2019 at 2:32:56 AM

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The Constitution has a minimum age for POTUS but no maximum age for a reason.

Unless someone has a mental condition like dementia, age should not be an issue.

Submitted on Wednesday, May 15, 2019 at 4:17:47 PM

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