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How Old Is Too Old To Be President? One Geriatrician Says That's The Wrong Question

Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren are all Democratic presidential candidates over 70 years old. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren are all Democratic presidential candidates over 70 years old. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The heart attack that pulled 78-year-old Sen. Bernie Sanders off the campaign trail earlier this month also renewed debate over the appropriate age for a president in a race where all the front-runners, including the incumbent, are in their 70s.

Now 73, President Trump was the oldest president to take office. Both Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden, 76, would topple that record if they won. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who turned 70 over the summer, comes in as the youngest of the candidates topping the polls.

And last month former President Jimmy Carter, himself the oldest living president in history at 95, called for an "age limit" to the presidency.

"If I were just 80 years old," he said, "if I was 15 years younger, I don't believe I could undertake the duties I experienced when I was president."

But while news anchors and political strategists debate whether voters can accept a president who would turn 80 in office, geriatrician Louise Aronson says she'd be fine with it — under certain conditions.

Aronson, author of "Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life," points to the "tremendous variability" of old age.

"If you take one two-year-old, absent some catastrophic condition, they’re all pretty much the same worldwide,” she says. “That is not true of 80-year-olds.”

She says there are better factors to judge older candidates on — and that calling them "out of touch" might just be ageist.

Interview Highlights

On how concerned voters should be about Bernie Sanders' heart attack

"I think we should be concerned. I’m a geriatrician. I’m all for people as they age doing whatever they can do. But having a heart attack puts you at risk for more heart attacks, for heart failure, for death. And running for president is hugely stressful, the hours … the stress hormones, which really aren’t good for a healing heart. [But] I don’t think this has to do so much with his age as with his health status. And that is one of the key points about candidates of any age: Health might matter more than age."

On whether an 80-year-old is incapable of being president

"No, although not every 80-year-old is capable of being president. ... You can have 80-year-olds who are gravely debilitated. You can have 80-year-olds who are hugely fit and functional. In geriatrics, we tend to look at an amalgam of things: What health conditions does the person have? Obviously, it’s hugely different if you’ve had a major stroke versus if you need a little thyroid replacement, for example. We look at functional status. How far and fast can you walk? How nimble is your mind? And all these things vary tremendously. So, it’s harder in old age to use the age persay. Although I have to agree with Jimmy Carter, and I do think there’s a point at which the chances you will function adequately for such a grueling job do go down because we become more tired as we get into advanced old age."

On whether public perception has kept up as the American workforce ages

"The extra decades of life that the 20th century’s medicine and public health gave us are really taking place in elderhood. So there is this whole new phase in which people might not do the same work they did in adulthood but want to and can be absolutely engaged. So it’s an exciting phase, and I think we do need to culturally catch up with the fact that it’s absolutely legitimate to be a person in your 70s and doing all sorts of things and in your 80s too. Just because it’s new doesn’t mean it’s wrong or impossible."

On whether it's fair to say older presidential candidates are "out of touch"

"Well, I think it’s a little age biased. So they’re in touch with, you know, one segment of the population. But I think you could argue that a younger candidate, who can’t speak to things that the older candidates are thinking about and doing, is out of touch with them. I think when we say out of touch, we are saying that a certain segment of the population, a certain age band, is the norm. So to say you’re out of touch is to say you’re in a different group. And when we make different bad, I think we’re in trouble. .. I also think for the president, no one person can know everything you need to know to be a president. So one of the key attributes, whether this person is young or old, would be to have really good advisers of different age groups, so that they’re in touch with multiple segments of the population."

Francesca Paris produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Kathleen McKenna. Paris also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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