Today, even while wishing President-elect Biden a happy birthday, some wonder: At age 78, does he have and will he sustain for four years the energy, mental acuity, and drive to excel in his new role? Or, as he approaches 80, will he embody his opponent's caricature of "Sleepy Joe"as someone not to be trusted with the cognitive demands of national and world leadership?
Mr. President-elect, I empathize. I, too, turned 78 this fall. So on behalf of you and all of us late-70s folks, let me shine the light of psychological science on our capacities.
First, people should understand that the more we age, the less age predicts our abilities. Knowing that James is 8 and Jamal is 18 tells us much about their differences. Not so with two adults who similarly differ by a decade. Many a 78-year-old can outrun and outthink a 68-year-old neighbor.
It's true that we late-70s folks have some diminishing abilities. Like you, Mr. President-elect, I can still jogbut not as fast or far. The stairs we once bounded up have gotten steeper, the newsprint smaller, others' voices fainter. And in the molasses of our brain, memories bubble more slowly to the surface: We more often experience brain freezes as we try to retrieve someone's name or the next point we were about to make.
Yet with a lifetime's accumulation of antibodies, we also suffer fewer common colds and flus than do our grandchildren. Physical exercise, which you and I regularly do, not only sustains our muscles, bones, and hearts; it also stimulates neurogenesis, the birth of new brain cells and neural connections. The result, when compared with sedentary folks like your predecessor, is better memory, sharper judgment, and minimized cognitive decline.
Moreover, we either retain or grow three important strengths:
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