Should there be an age limit to hold elected office?
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Two recent incidents in the U.S. Senate called attention to some senators' age. Republican Mitch McConnell froze in mid-sentence during a news conference before a colleague led him away. Democrat Dianne Feinstein hesitated during a committee meeting. And you can hear in this audio an aide instructing her to vote aye.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED CLERK: Senator Feinstein?
DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Um.
PATTY MURRAY: You say aye.
FEINSTEIN: Pardon me?
MURRAY: Just say aye.
FEINSTEIN: I would like to support a yes vote on this.
INSKEEP: All this happens as the president runs for reelection. He'll be 82 next year, and his leading Republican rival will be 78. We've called on S. Jay Olshansky, who's a professor of public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago who studies aging. And he's analyzed the longevity of U.S. presidents all the way back to George Washington. Welcome, sir.
S JAY OLSHANSKY: Thanks for having me.
INSKEEP: What have you thought about as people have questioned the age of some of our national leaders?
OLSHANSKY: Well, we really shouldn't be using age as the primary barometer to evaluate individuals for president. Look, if we're going to do that, we might as well use weight as well. No, not not a good idea.
INSKEEP: Explain what you mean by that.
OLSHANSKY: Well, look, the - I'm not going to sugarcoat aging. There's no question that the older we get, the higher the risk of things going wrong. But there's plenty of people that make it out to older ages perfectly healthy in mind and body, but certainly in mind and perfectly capable of being president. And I don't know how you would actually put some sort of age barometer. How would you determine what the proper number is? It's just simply age discrimination if you try to do something like that.
INSKEEP: So if you said, well, you should retire at 65 or no one should be president after the age of 70 - if somebody said something like that, you'd say there's no reason for that at all.
OLSHANSKY: Absolutely not. Like, I said, the - you know, some of the - some individuals make it out to older ages perfectly healthy. Some are at younger ages and not healthy. So how many times you've traveled around the sun is probably not the best barometer of whether or not somebody should be president. And look, if you're going to use age as the primary factor, you're never going to vote for somebody over the age of 40.
INSKEEP: You know, as we're talking, cable television is on, and there's an anti-Joe Biden ad of some kind that just showed a bunch of shots of him stumbling and so forth. So clearly, people have made this part of the conversation. But are you saying there's a difference between someone's biological age and, say, their cognitive age?
OLSHANSKY: Yes. Look, this is well known in the world of aging, in the world of aging science, that chronological age is not a good barometer of biological age. You can get people out to into their 80s and 90s that can operate at levels that are 10, 20, 30 years younger than their chronological age. And the reverse is also true. People can be in their 40s and 50s and operate at the level of somebody who's much, much older. We've looked at the medical records of Biden and Trump and discovered that they are both exhibiting attributes that are associated with superagers, individuals that make it out very healthy and cognitively intact.
INSKEEP: Now, that's really interesting because critics of both men will focus on signs of dementia and so forth. You said superagers. What is a superager?
OLSHANSKY: These are individuals that make it out past the age of 80 that are functioning at a cognitive level that is often decades younger than their chronological age. It just tells you that we age, we grow old, we senesce at different rates. So you cannot look at all people that are over the age of 80, for example, and assume that they're all going to operate the same way. You know, it doesn't work that way. There's a lot of variability that exists, and Biden has exhibited plenty of attributes associated with being a superager.
INSKEEP: OK, so we've got to take a case by case and not just by a number. S. Jay Olshansky of the University of Illinois, Chicago. Thank you so much.
OLSHANSKY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.