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How Old is Too Old to Govern?

Most Americans favor an age limit for the president and other politicians. But some ethicists and scientists argue that’s ageist and scientifically unsound.

How Old is Too Old to Govern?

Photos via Wikimedia Commons (left: Joint Congressional Committee; right: Gage Skidmore)

Barring a considerable shift in the political winds, the next US president will be either 82 or 78 years old on Inauguration Day. Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who twice froze in front of cameras and was unable to speak for several agonizing moments, is 81. His Democratic counterpart, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, is a comparative spring chicken at 72. Senator Dianne Feinstein died last month at age 90, after months of frequent absences from the chamber due to health concerns.

Are these politicians older and wiser? Or older and cognitively impaired? Do their minds function well enough to hold such important positions? Are they too out of touch to govern effectively? Is it ageist to even suggest they can’t handle the jobs?

Experts in the disparate fields of human cognition, neuroscience, psychology and ethics argue it’s unreasonable and unfair to assume everyone in their 70s or beyond is less capable of governing, especially considering the importance of experience and wisdom one would hope comes with age. Yet the odds of cognitive impairment do increase notably after age 65, and a growing chorus of scientists and even some politicians are calling for, at the least, cognitive testing — either required or voluntary — for elected federal officials and candidates.


In-depth tests that already exist to objectively measure cognitive capacity could be useful, said Mark Mapstone, PhD, a neuropsychologist and professor of neurology at UC Irvine, in a symposium last year about cognitive decline among political leaders (video).

During the symposium, experts in neurology, psychiatry, political science, neuropsychology, legal medicine, and occupational medicine, along with a member of the California state legislature, reached a consensus: Cognitive testing for political candidates, regardless of age, is appropriate, said the symposium co-director Mark Fisher, MD, a professor of neurology and director of UCI’s Center for Neuropolitics.

Read the article here.