Written by Nancy Morrow-Howell, PhD, co-director; Brian Carpenter, PhD, co-director; and Natalie Galucia, LMSW, manager of the Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging at the Institute for Public Health
We’re asked frequently about President Biden’s age. Mostly, people are sharing their opinion that he’s too old to run for office again — they say he’s not energetic enough, he loses his train of thought occasionally, he walks unsteadily, he looks and sounds frail. As gerontologists, we have some thoughts about chronological age and leadership that are relevant in a political race in which two of the top candidates are 77 years old (Trump) and 80 years old (Biden).
We first ask: What are the most important qualities for a person to be an effective President of the United States? To us, we want someone who is honest and has integrity; someone who is experienced in the processes of our democracy; someone who seeks advice from experts, knows history and values science; someone who is a respected by other world leaders and is a global team player; someone who is dedicated to the pursuit of equity and compassion…and each of us could go on with our own thoughts about other important leadership qualities.
Then we ask: What does age have to do with these qualities? Like gender, race, and ethnicity, age is a real characteristic of a politician that people notice and have opinions about; but chronological age is not on our list of important characteristics. Nor does it correlate with the qualities listed above – a younger candidate may or may not have the qualities that we value, and an older person might not either. We believe age is not entirely irrelevant to our desired leadership qualities; but we also believe that if it is relevant, it’s because a longer life gives potentially more opportunities for experience, learning, and well-developed relationships. (Note the emphasis on potentially; they’re not a given.)
Our country doesn’t need a president who is physically strong or fast. They’re not going to have to win a foot race or lug heavy things around. And they don’t even need great balance to do the important things in the job. People worry about the cognitive abilities of an older president, but only some of those abilities change consistently with age, and they don’t change for everyone, and even when they do, it’s usually very late in life. In any case, few of the critical decisions made at that level require cognitive speed; experience and the acceptance of expert advice are more important.
In short, we don’t think there is a need to emphasize age as an important criteria for a strong leader. But we know that age does correlate with health. An older person is more at risk for certain kinds of chronic illness and negative health incidents than a younger person (although health problems in later life are not a given either and can affect a person at any age). The risk of dementia also increases with age. And physical and cognitive health does matter…if it negatively affects performance of the responsibilities of a political office.
But our point is that AGE does not equal physical and cognitive health problems. For example, dementia is not a normal part of aging, and most people in their 80’s don’t have cognitive impairment that affects their daily functioning. A person’s health behaviors (diet, exercise, sleep), and social support system are also important. White House staff nearby to keep schedules reasonable and self-care practices strong are important too (for all of us). We all should be asking, “Where do our older candidates stand on these considerations?”
People use age as shorthand, usually for negative things like declining strength or reaction time; but age doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about the qualities that really matter in a leader – judgment, emotional stability, humility, morality and human decency. Performance matters, accomplishments matter, but not age per se. Old age should be something to celebrate rather than denigrate. And we encourage everyone to think about what qualities we want in a leader and then assess the extent to which they’re related to age.