As Hillary Clinton geared up to announce her candidacy for U.S. President in 2014, “Too Old?” became a refrain in the news headlines. “Is Hillary Clinton too old to be president?” MSNBC asked. ” Hillary is too old to run,” the New York Post claimed. Politico opinionator Pete Seat echoed the sentiment: ” Hillary Clinton is too old to be president.”
Then Bernie Sanders – at age 73, five years older than Clinton – announced his candidacy and suddenly, the race on the Democrats’ side was starting to look older than any in recent history. Pundits have been pointing to the Reagan presidency. Reagan was 69 when he took office; his son Ron Reagan contends that his father showed signs of Alzheimer’s three years into his first term. If Clinton wins, she’ll be 69 when she takes office, too; Sanders will be 75. But with steady increases in longevity, maybe being 69 or 75 today doesn’t mean what it meant 30 years ago.
The “too old” chorus has been silenced by charges of ageism; still, that just means it’s gone undercover. So we asked some experts: How old is too old? Is it reasonable to even consider a sell-by date for Presidential candidates? And does an older candidate stand a chance of winning?
What the Experts Say
We asked Dr. Nir Barzilai, professor of medicine and genetics at Albert Einstein and director of the Institute for Aging Research. It depends, he says. “Biological and chronological age are not the same, but you can make an educated guess about biological age. The older you are, the more your genes rather than lifestyle are likely to predict longevity.” He added, “The Queen of England’s mother died at 103. John McCain’s mother died at 102. Bloomberg’s mother at 101. Someone like Hillary who functions at very high intensity has the gene for longevity. In fact, her mother died at 92.”
But aren’t you more likely to get Alzheimer’s the older you are? Well yes, Barzilai says, but the more educated and intelligent a person is, the less you’ll see the decline even if they have Alzheimer’s. Plus, surprisingly – and this is reassuring for many of us – longevity is “continuous.” According to Barzilai, if one of your parents lived to be over 85, your likelihood of getting Alzheimer’s is reduced by 25 percent, even if that parent had the disease.
We tried to find out how long Sanders’ parents lived, but even his campaign staff doesn’t seem to know. It may not matter a whole lot, however. “We have data to show that at age 70, longevity isn’t a problem for candidates,” Barzlai told us, “and that wisdom and experience outweigh the negatives of aging.”
“I agree with Paul Baltes who did pioneering work on the relationship between wisdom and age,” says aging and longevity expert Dr. Walter M Bortz. “He wrote that ‘not many people are wise, but all wise people are old.’” And for Bortz,who is clinical associate professor of medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine, that gives older candidates an edge. “If I was on a plane that was facing a crash, I’d much prefer an 80-year-old pilot to a 30-year-old,” he told Senior Planet. “Older pilots use their wisdom and years of experience.” That was graphically demonstrated by pilot Sully Sullenberger, who was ready for retirement when he safely glided a disabled plane into the Hudson River, saving all the passengers.
Research psychologist and former editor in chief of Psychology Today, Dr. Robert Epstein, has written about the aging brain for Discover Magazine and Huffington Post. He’s not so sure about the reliability of the age-wisdom construct. “As long as the candidate shows no signs of senility – say, from early Alzheimer’s – an older candidate is probably your best choice if you think the world is a fairly stable place. As we get older, our judgment regarding matters we know about generally gets better. Experience is a great teacher.”
But, Epstein says, “If you think the world is rapidly changing, that’s another story. The older we get, the harder it is for us to quickly learn, master and evaluate new information.”
So, where does that leave us?
Can an Older Candidate Win?
An older candidate who can keep up with new trends and changing technologies might have the upper hand – at least, when it comes to winning an election, according to Darren Grubb, strategic communications consultant and a veteran of two presidential campaigns. Millennials overwhelmingly backed Obama in his two Presidential bids, and Grubb claims that in 2015, that generation doesn’t have a deeply held view of any older candidate, even one with high name identification like Hillary Clinton. “The challenge in 2016 is finding ways to communicate utilizing platforms that meet the current sensibilities of this voting bloc such as Snapchat, Meerkat…as well as ‘older’ channels like Facebook and Twitter,” Grubb told us.
Barack Obama was the social media king in 2012, using the Internet to gain support when running against 65-year-old Mitt Romney, but today the oldest candidate, Bernie Sanders, holds the social media advantage. According to the New York Times, his Facebook posts attract tens of thousands of likes and shares, and threads about him often break through to the home page of mega-community site Reddit, where the cluster of topics rarely focuses on Presidential election politics.
Alison Novak, assistant professor of media studies at Temple University, thinks age is a positive for candidates. “While it isn’t a guarantee, older candidates may best represent older voters since they’ll understand their needs and be able to connect better with them. They’re more likely to shine a light on issues that are critical for seniors, such as Social Security, Medicare, nursing home laws.”
Novak notes that there’s a lot of subtle ageism when it comes to the news media. “The media doesn’t want to be accused of being ageist, so they use terms like “mature” or “grandparent” when referring to an older candidate. It’s OK to say Obama was too young, but not that Hillary is too old.”
The jury is still out on age and the Presidency. What do you think?