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  • Dan Connors

How old is too old to be president?

Courtesy Mary Poppins

The average age of CEO's of America's corporations is 58. School superintendents average age 55 and state governors average 62 at the moment. All three of these positions are executive positions, in charge of decision making for thousands or millions of people who rely on them for leadership.

Our current president, Donald Trump, is 73 and would be 78 when he finishes his second term. The three leading Democratic candidates are all over age 70. In congress the speaker of the house is 79 while the leader of the senate is 77.

The question of age in politics is a sensitive one, given that baby boomer politicians are firmly in charge of the country, and no one wants to question their abilities to carry out their jobs. Objectively, the boomers cannot be expected to give honest evaluations about their own ability to serve.

I'm not saying that age is necessarily a dis-qualifier, but the science is very clear that most people experience significant physical and cognitive decline after age 60.

The frontal lobe, responsible for our cognitive function and decision-making abilities, begins to shrink between ages 60 and 70, resulting in forgetfulness, confusion, and a lower executive functioning- critical for planning and problem-solving. Myelin, the substance in the brain that gives us the ability to learn new things, declines after age 50, leading many seniors to feel stuck in the past. The severity of this decline varies with people, but it is a natural and expected part of the aging process.

When the founding fathers first imagined the presidency, they put a lower limit of 35 years on anyone seeking that office. There was no upper limit, possibly because folks didn't live all that long back then. George Washington was 57 and Abe Lincoln was 52 when they became president, still in the sweet spot for experience and mental and physical health. Jimmy Carter, still alive and building houses at 95, recently said that there was no way he could have performed as president at age 80. “You have to be able to go from one subject to another and concentrate on each one adequately and then put them together in a comprehensive way," Carter said.

Mind you, being elected at the right age is no guarantee of wise governance. The average age of the five worst presidents in history was 54. Perhaps we're going about this whole process wrong. The longest and most expensive elections in the world are giving us worse and worse candidates. The job of president is one of the most complex and important ones in existence. The person taking that job needs to be physically, morally, and mentally fitter than the rest of us.

Literally the most important aspect of the job is the ability to decide. Presidents take in information, weigh the pluses and minuses of all options, and come to a decision. But making decisions is probably the hardest type of mental activity there is. Humans only have a limited amount of brain power each day for decisions, after which decision fatigue sets in.

As we age, our capacity for complex decision-making fades as our brains decline.

The good news for older people like me is that while the trend is a gradual decline in abilities, there are things that we can do to fight back. All the usual advice for good health applies to mental agility and toughness- quality sleep, stress relief, proper diet, exercise, and regular stimulation with new ideas, people and challenges. That's why some folks in their 80's are more functional than others in their 40's and 50's. (Warren Buffett, still working at age 89, spends 80% of his day reading.) But without that effort, it’s a losing battle.

What happens when a fragile president meets challenges they don't understand? There are only two options, both bad. The first is that they delegate the important decisions to unelected staffers while they bask in the trappings of the office and pretend to be in charge. The second is that they attempt to fake their way through it, afraid to ask anyone for help or advice to avoid looking weak. Instead, they rely on shortcuts- cognitive rules that may be wrong or out of date, to simplify the problem and make it faster and easier to digest.

The United States and its government is much more complicated than when George Washington was first elected. Passing a law to fix one problem opens all kinds of consequences for other problems down the road. There are no easy answers anymore, and politicians of any age who promise easy solutions and bland slogans are fooling themselves and everybody else.

How old is too old to be president? It depends. There is no set age, but anybody applying for the job needs to be able to prove mental and physical readiness. Those over 60 need extra scrutiny. How many books do they read? How long do they sleep every night? How is their diet and exercise regime? Do they surround themselves with yes-men and women, or devils advocates? To make the best choices for 330 million people, we need to ask more questions of these people who, God help them, think they know enough to take on the hardest job in the world.

We need leaders like Abraham Lincoln, who was a voracious reader and writer, filling his cabinet with political rivals who challenged him to be better during the most troubled time of our nation's history. The candidates applying for the presidency in 2020 need to prove to us that they have the flexibility, strength, and stamina to lead and inspire the divided but somehow still United States and a world that still looks to us for guidance.

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