On Tuesday, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders tossed his name in for another U.S. presidential bid. He’s 77.
If successful, Sanders would be 79 when elected. That’s not much older than one of his chief competitors; Joe Biden is 76.
Ronald Reagan holds the distinction of being the oldest person to win a presidential race, having won his re-election at age 73. In comparison, Donald Trump, who is now 73, won in 2016 when he was 70.
Advisers, past and present, as well as prospective voters, have raised concerns about the age of presidential hopefuls. They worry over a candidate’s energy and vitality, whether a septuagenarian can appear fresh and connect with younger voters.
How old is too old?
“The short answer is we have to be careful not to rush to judgment and at the same time make sure there are enough provisions in place should something go awry,” says Donald Abelson, director of the Brian Mulroney Institute of Government at St. Francis Xavier University.
“Preventing a Bernie Sanders or a Joe Biden or a Donald Trump from seeking election or re-election based on an arbitrary number to me would not be the way to go.”
Eight American presidents have died while serving, according to the White House Historical Association. Four were assassinated: Abraham Lincoln in 1865, James Garfield in 1881, William McKinley in 1901, and John F. Kennedy in 1963.
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And four died of natural causes. William Henry Harrison died from pneumonia in 1841; Zachary Taylor died of acute gastroenteritis in 1850; Warren G. Harding died of apoplexy in 1923; and Franklin D. Roosevelt died in 1945 from a cerebral hemorrhage.
Age concerns are increasingly cropping up because people are living longer, says Elliot Tepper, an international relations professor at Carleton University. Look to Malaysia, he says, where Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed is 93 years old “and will hold office for another couple of years with no sign of slowing down.”
While none of the U.S. hopefuls so far are quite that senior, Tepper doesn’t want people to focus on their age –– especially considering Sanders at 77 is not an outlier.
“If 70 is the new 50,” Tepper says, “we better get used to it.”
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Dr. Jennifer Ryan, director of scientific and academic affairs at Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest, as well as senior scientist, says there isn’t really an age when you become “too old to do anything.”
In fact, Ryan says, aging can bring its own benefits.
“There’s collective wisdom in our older adults,” she says. “They have obviously more experiences to draw on and a larger network of knowledge to draw on than younger adults.”
The one drawback might be on the creativity front, Ryan says.
“Younger adults can be a bit more flexible and offer a new creative perspective in their thinking because there’s not an overwhelming pattern of stored experiences.”
Ultimately, she says, “it’s important to have everyone at the table –– every age, every race, every gender.”
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Health risks more prevalent in older adults can become an issue, Abelson says, but in those cases, there are Constitutional provisions for a vice-president to step in.
“What it really comes down to is a combination of physical energy and the ability to focus and discern and be able to understand the complexities of the issues and to make important decisions.”
To that end, Abelson cautions how much we blame on age. Look at Trump’s “irrational” policy decisions, he says: Do we blame age “or just his demeanour?”
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“His behaviour is symptomatic of a much longer pattern of behaviour that had been well-established decades ago, so I think we have to be careful,” he says.
“If the concern is that a Bernie Sanders or a Joe Biden or again, Donald Trump, don’t have youth on their side and therefore are incapable, I think we’ve got to be very careful about that.”
Age is a “legitimate concern,” Tepper says, but it shouldn’t be a determining factor.
His advice? “Get over it and get on with it.”
– with files from the Associated Press
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