When Ronald Reagan was running for president in 1980, there were questions about his age and whether he was up to such a stressful job. After all, the Gipper would turn 70 less than a month after being inaugurated. Seventy? The oldest president up to that time had been Dwight Eisenhower, who had retired at that age in 1961 after serving two full terms.
These days, though, Reagan would be just a kid compared with top U.S. leaders.
President Joe Biden was elected at 78, defeating Donald Trump, who had been elected at 70 and is dropping hints about running in 2024, when he would be 78. On the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is 81 and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is 79. Across the street from the Capitol, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer is still on the job at age 82.
You get the idea. Here we are, well into the 21st century, in a high-tech digital age, where bits and bytes move in nanoseconds, and yet the people leading us into this rapidly changing, constantly evolving new world are in their eighth, and in some cases ninth and nearly 10th decade of life (I’m looking at you, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, who, at 88, says he’ll ask Iowans for another six-year term, and Democratic Sen Dianne Feinstein of California, also 88, who said recently that she has no plans to step down).
No disrespect to anyone. But these are tough jobs. How old is too old to do them? And what about the rest of us who will work — by choice or necessity — well into the future?
Which brings us to a novel idea, albeit one that will get absolutely nowhere in Washington: a senility test for government officials of a certain age. That’s the brainchild of Sen. Bill Cassidy, Republican from Louisiana, who also happens to be a physician. In an interview with the news service Axios, which aired on HBO, Cassidy didn’t give a specific age for such tests but said that for many people in their 80s, that’s when their “rapid decline” begins.
“It’s usually noticeable,” Cassidy said. “So anybody in a position of responsibility who may potentially be on that slope, that is of concern. And I’m saying this as a doctor.”
The senator’s office did not respond Monday to a request to elaborate.
But this decline actually has roots at a much younger age. As many as one in six Americans as young as 60 is living with what’s known as “mild cognitive impairment,” or MCI. That’s according to the Alzheimer’s Association, which says “mild cognitive impairment causes cognitive changes that are serious enough to be noticed by the person affected and by family members and friends,” though this may “not affect the individual’s ability to carry out everyday activities.”
But after 60, things can quickly deteriorate. In its 2021 annual report, the association says that between the ages of 65 and 74, an estimated 5.4% of Americans has Alzheimer’s dementia, which increases to 13.8% of those aged 75 to 84 and then 34.6% — more than one in three — of those aged 85 and older. It also notes that people younger than age 65 can also develop Alzheimer’s dementia, though “it is much less common and prevalence is uncertain.”
So one-eighth of Americans between 75 and 84 and one-third over age 85 have Alzheimer’s dementia, according to the annual report. But the data are not distributed evenly: Blacks and Hispanics are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s dementia than whites. “This higher risk, or incidence, of Alzheimer’s and other dementias appears to stem from variations in medical conditions, health-related behaviors and socioeconomic risk factors across racial groups,” the Alzheimer’s Association says.
- Get better organized. Keep your keys, for example, in one place all the time. “Life is simpler when you have a place for everything,” Klemm says. “Habit relieves the memory.”
- Challenge yourself mentally. “Seek out new experiences, stay active socially, make mental demands on yourself, such as learning a new language, playing chess, or getting an advanced college degree,” Klemm says.
- Reduce stress. “Chronic stress (emotional pressure suffered for a prolonged period of time in which an individual perceives they have little or no control) clearly disrupts memory formation and recall,” he writes.
- Eat foods with vitamins and antioxidants. Focus on vitamins C, D and E. Like many experts on aging, he says you should eat blueberries, “especially on an empty stomach.” What about vitamin supplements? They won’t help, Klemm says, unless you have a nutritional deficiency. Focus on food.
- Avoid obesity. Weight increases stress on the heart and arteries, which pump oxygenated blood to your brain, which helps you retain mental sharpness.
- Exercise. Enough said. Keeps the blood flowing, and the pounds off. Talk to your doctor first.
- Get plenty of sleep. “Many studies show the brain is processing the day’s events while you sleep and consolidating them in memory,” Klemm says. “Naps help too!” he adds.
Naps? Count me in.