As Biden Turns 80, Experts Assess Aging Issues

Mental declines aren't a given for people in their 80s, experts say
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 20, 2022 2:50 PM CST
Biden Is Now the First Octogenarian President
President Biden takes a selfie with US troops after landing on Air Force One on Wednesday in Guam.   (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The US entered unfamiliar territory Sunday, when President Biden turned 80. The milestone prompted a family brunch at the White House, CNN reports, as well as an uptick in discussion of what the milestone might mean for the president and the nation. Biden has said it's a "legitimate question to ask anybody over 70 years old whether or not they're fit" for the office, per the New York Times. He's also said he hasn't decide whether to run for another term. "My intention is that I run again," he said earlier this month, per the AP. "But I'm a great respecter of fate." Observers and experts see reasons not to worry about Biden's aging, though it's complicated.

In his job, Biden displays the knowledge and skill accumulated over a long career and taps the personal relationships he's developed—basically deploying what AP calls "the wisdom of the aged." But he often moves haltingly and misspeaks. The US has never had a president this old, and a poll this month found most voters don't think Biden is up to another term mentally. He exercises five days a week, the White House says, though being a politician, Biden doesn't always catch a break on that issue. When Biden fell off his bike this summer in Delaware, it was the tumble that got all the attention, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a political communications authority at the University of Pennsylvania. "Those of us that know a little about aging were pretty impressed by the fact that he was on his bicycle to begin with ... that you've got somebody who is really active and healthy for his age," she said.

Experts say that while risks of disease and dementia increase with age, people who are active and engaged, with a sense of purpose, can be productive into their 80s. Ten authorities told the Times that Biden has a lot going for him, and that some preconceptions about aging are errant. Chronological age and biological age are different, they said, and brains can improve in people who remain active. "This idea that old age is associated with only declines is not true," said Dr. Dilip Jeste, a psychiatrist at the University of California, San Diego. Studies of active people have found "increased connectivity among specific networks, and even new neurons and synapses can form in selected brain regions with older age," Jeste said.

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The gaffes and memory failures are common as people age but "not a real deficit," said Dr. Dan Blazer, a psychiatric epidemiologist. "They forget, they remember they have forgotten, and they eventually remember what they have forgotten," he said. The experts had said similar things about the health of former President Donald Trump, who's now 76, when he ran for president. For one thing, they reminded, presidents get really good health care. By itself, the professionals said, age is not a disqualifier. But Jamieson brought up another issue, possibly relevant for Biden and Trump and brought to mind by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's announcement last week. "Even if one is highly competent and successful," Jamieson asked, "is there a point at which one should step aside to give others the opportunity to lead?" (More President Biden stories.)

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