Who Are You Calling Old? (WSJ)

[Editor's note: Fabulous charting of notable past presidents and their age entering office, age at death, and time in office. Includes Teddy Roosevelt, Kennedy, Clinton, Buchanan, Harrison, Reagan, and potential Obama and McCain. Reprinted from the Wall Street Journal. View full resolution version.]

 

Labels Change as Americans Live Longer, But Age Still Plays a Role in Election

By JUNE KRONHOLZ
August 26, 2008; 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.

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.

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.

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.

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