Who Are You Calling Old? Labels Change as Americans Live Longer, But Age Still Plays a Role in Election

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August 26, 2008; Wall Street Journal, Page A15

In 1996, Bob Dole, the Republican Party’s presidential nominee, battled criticism that, at 73 years old, he was too old to be president. Now 85, Mr. Dole is working “pretty much every day” at a Washington law firm, says the firm’s spokesman.
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Age is certain to be an issue in this election, too. Republican Sen. John McCain, who turns 72 this week, would be the oldest man elected president should he win. Democratic Sen. Barack Obama, at 47, would be the fourth-youngest.

But in a country that is rapidly aging while staying healthy longer, what does old age mean, and how much should it matter?

The average U.S. life expectancy is now age 78, up 30 years since 1900 and up 10 years since 1950, according to the Census Bureau. Geriatricians now talk of those younger than 80 as the “young old,” and of those younger than 65 as the “near old.”

U.S. businesses still seem wary of older people. The Corporate Library, a business-research firm, says that seven of the largest 500 public companies, including News Corp. — owner of Dow Jones & Co., publisher of The Wall Street Journal — have chief executives who are 72 or older. Some corporate recruiters warn about the memories, energy levels and technological savvy of older executives.

Would you rather have a president who’s relatively old or relatively young?By that standard, businessman Warren Buffet, one-quarter of U.S. senators and four Supreme Court justices are over the over-72 hill.

In corporate America, “there’s a code word — how much ‘runway’ does a guy have” left in his career, said Hal Reiter, chairman of Herbert Mines Associates, which recruits executives for the retail industry. An executive in his 60s probably has five to seven years left on his runway, Mr. Reiter said.

Some who study aging say such fears are misplaced. A 45-year-old and a 75-year-old “absolutely” have the same mental capacity, and energy is a function of health rather than aging, said Neil Resnick, chief of geriatric medicine at the University of Pittsburgh.

“Aging has such a small impact on how we function that it is of minimal importance” compared with experience, personality and the advisers a president or chief executive surrounds himself with, Dr. Resnick added.

Geriatricians say most people begin losing organ function — which means they start aging — somewhere between 18 and 30. After that, the heart, kidneys and other organs lose about 1% of their function each year. The world record for a 75-year-old marathon runner is about 50% longer than the world record for a runner who is 50 years younger.

But organs have from four to six times more capacity than most people need. That excess capacity is why we can run marathons or endure other extraordinary mental or physical challenges.
See an interactive graphic weighing the candidates’ ages.
Brain function declines at the same rate as other organs, and especially affects how fast older people can retrieve information — the explanation for that maddening “senior moment.”

Our genes influence how much and how fast we decline: They account for about 30% of longevity and perhaps half of age-related changes in the brain, said John Rowe, a physician and former Aetna Inc. chairman who now heads a MacArthur Foundation research program on aging.

But life experience and accumulated wisdom can help offset normal brain decline and compensate for slowed retrieval time. “The great benefit of aging is ‘been there, done that and learned from it,’ ” said David Reuben, head of geriatric medicine at the University of California at Los Angeles. Mathematicians do their best work in their 20s; orchestra conductors and diplomats peak in their 60s or 70s, he added.

On the other hand, Robert Butler, who founded the government’s National Institute on Aging and now heads the International Longevity Center research group, credits judgment over experience when it comes to making sound decisions. He points to Abraham Lincoln, who was 52 and had just 10 years of government experience before becoming president.

Dr. Butler added, though, that brain cells can continue to “flourish” and grow in people in their 80s. Vocabularies expand as people age; older brains develop unconscious work-arounds to diminish the effects of slowed retrieval speed.

Despite Sen. McCain’s admitted aversion to technology, there is no research that shows older people are less willing to take up new ideas. “If he’s averse to technology now, he probably always was,” said Dr. Resnick.

UCLA’s Dr. Reuben insists that commentators are asking the wrong question when they focus on age: It isn’t how old, but how healthy the candidates are.

Almost everyone knows a 75-year-old who sky-dives, hikes the Grand Canyon or runs a family business. Census Bureau data suggest that Americans generally are staving off disability to the very end of life: Those at age 65 can expect that half their remaining years will be disability free.

About one in eight men age 70 or older is working, and among those who aren’t, poor health is one of the less-important reasons. Even though age-discrimination laws often prevent mandatory retirement, twice as many say they were “forced” to retire for one reason or other as those who said they were sidelined by illness.

But most people also know someone who died in his or her 50s from a heart attack or cancer. The risks of disease and the effects of a lifetime of exposure to sun, pollution, cigarettes and other life shorteners catch up with us as we age.

The percentage of people with Alzheimer’s disease doubles every five years after age 65, and while heart-related deaths are down in the past four decades, cancer deaths are rising.

The backdrop for all this is an over-65 population that will double to 80 million in 30 years as the tidal wave of baby boomers sweeps through. One in five people will be older than 65, up from one in eight now, and Dr. Rowe predicts a future in which as many Americans push walkers as strollers.

Longer life will have a huge effect on everything from immigration policy to public transit to housing. Where will we find all the home health aides, how do we get 85-year-olds off the highways and what is to become of those four-bedroom houses?

Retirement at age 65 made sense when most workers poured steel, plowed fields and mined coal. Today’s workers — still vital and healthy, for the most part — want nothing to do with lowering their Social Security-benefits age.

An aging society also may affect elections, although that is less clear. Researchers who study prejudice say that Americans are more biased against the elderly than against any other group, including those identified by their race or sexual orientation. Even the elderly are biased against the elderly.

Voters ages 65 and older account for more than one-quarter of the electorate and vote at higher rates than other age groups. In presidential elections, young voters “always go for the new face,” said Robert Binstock, a professor of aging at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, but older voters vote much like everyone else.

That means that, even in an aging society, Sen. McCain can’t count on the oldster vote, even as Sen. Obama is relying on the youth vote. Being older is one thing; it could be that voting for an older president is another.

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