Biden and Trump Are Apparently Old

Stop me if you've heard this one . . .

Articles about how old President Biden and former President Trump are have been something of a cottage industry and for good reason. The Economist‘s “Heart attacks, strokes, dementia—can Biden and Trump beat the odds?” though, is quite odd.

Age, they say, brings wisdom. But it also brings decrepitude. When the latter begins to outweigh the former, perhaps it is time for even the most ambitious to consider retiring into slippered ease.

If either Joe Biden or Donald Trump has contemplated such retirement, though, they have clearly rejected the idea. Instead, both are proposing themselves as candidates for second stints doing one of the most gruelling jobs on the planet. Mr Trump is now 77 and will be 78 come the general election. Mr Biden is 81, and would be 86 at the end of his term, if he won.

The weirdly unparallel structure here is telling. Why compare the age Trump will be in November with the age Biden will be five years from now?

The most popular scientific explanation of ageing, disposable-soma theory, holds that natural selection hones youth at the expense of age, since this best serves the task of passing genes to the next generation. In both candidates’ cases, that has happened. Mr Biden fathered four children and has seven grandchildren; Mr Trump fathered five, and has ten. But the evolutionary flip-side, in the view of many commentators, is becoming apparent in slips, verbal and physical, being made by both, but especially by Mr Biden. Perhaps, some suggest, the slippers should beckon after all.

When it comes to age Mr Biden and Mr Trump are outliers compared both with other American presidents and with the present heads of government in other countries (see chart 1). When he became president in 2017 Mr Trump was the oldest person to have done so. That record was superseded in 2021 by Mr Biden.

An analysis published last year by the Pew Research Centre, an American think-tank (also on chart 1), showed that of the 187 countries for which data are available, only eight had leaders older than Mr Biden. (The oldest is Paul Biya of Cameroon, who is 90.) Among the rich democracies of the OECD, the trend since 1950 has been for heads of government to get younger. The average age upon taking up the top job has fallen from 60.2 to 55.5 in the past half-century.

Here, the comparison is interesting. That the leaders of OECD countries are getting younger while the US is suddenly electing older leaders is interesting. Then again, we have different systems. Most other advanced democracies have a parliamentary structure where leaders are chosen by their parties, whereas our presidents are chosen individually, both in party primaries and then in the general election. Our two oldest Presidents ever followed one of the youngest, Barrack Obama, who was 47 when he was elected. His predecessor, George W. Bush, was 54 when he took office. His predecessor, Bill Clinton, was 46. His predecessors were almost 65, almost 70, and 52 when elected. There’s no apparent rhyme or reason.

(Cameroon is a dictatorship, so I’m not sure Biya’s age tells us much of anything.)

How likely are Mr Biden or Mr Trump to last the course?

That is a matter with many variables. Not all of the relevant personal data are in the public domain. And the science of ageing is uncertain. Some studies, for example, suggest that running a country takes its toll. One published in 2015 by researchers at Harvard Medical School and Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine looked at elections for head of government in 17 rich countries, going back as far as 1722. It concluded that winners lived 4.4 fewer years after their last election than did runners-up who never held the top job. On the other hand, presidents top the social hierarchy. That can be lifespan-enhancing, as numerous investigations, starting with the Whitehall studies conducted between 1967 and 1988 by Michael Marmot of University College London (ucl), of British civil servants, show.

Possibly, the effects balance out. Work published in 2011 by Jay Olshansky, a gerontologist at the University of Illinois, estimated the expected mean lifespan for male contemporaries of America’s presidents, based on data from the time, to be 73.3 years. The actual lifespans of those presidents who had died of natural causes averaged 73.0. This suggests either that the job takes no toll, contradicting the Harvard/Case Western Reserve study (and also other work), or that incumbents would otherwise have had more than the average number of years to live. Dr Olshansky’s explanation, favouring the latter, is that presidents have tended to hail from privileged backgrounds (all but ten, he says, had been college-educated), with the health advantages that brings.

This is just a weird analysis. George Washington wasn’t a college graduate; he was certainly from a more privileged background than Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, or Barrack Obama, all of whom were college graduates and all of whom other than Reagan had law degrees. The only modern President without a college degree was Harry Truman; the other twelve* were elected in the 1700s or 1800s.

But, yes, we’ve tended to elect relatively wealthy men to the office. Discounting those who were assassinated, most of them have lived to be a ripe old age—considerably longer than the average life expectancy. Jimmy Carter is 99 and George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan made it to 94 and 93, respectively. Herbert Hoover made it to 90—as did John Adams, our second President, which was simply extraordinary for a man born in 1735.

Death, however, is not the only term-shortening medical event an incumbent might suffer. A debilitating heart attack or stroke might force a resignation or require the invocation of the 25th amendment to America’s constitution, which deals with presidential incapacity. Broadly speaking, the risk of stroke doubles with each passing decade. That is a worry. Then there is the question of mental wellbeing. Strokes aside, the passing years bring two threats to the brain: specific dementias such as Alzheimer’s disease, and a more general slowing of the wheels—though recent research suggests the two may overlap.

Medical imaging makes it possible to examine the brains of those without symptoms of dementia for the clumps of misshapen proteins that are one of Alzheimer’s characteristics. A study from 2019, by Jonathan Schott, a neurologist at ucl, and his colleagues showed that such plaques still seem to cause harm, even in those without a formal diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.

Conversely, work published in 2022 by a team from Northwestern University, in Chicago, looked at neurofibrillary tangles, another Alzheimer’s marker. It reported that so-called “super-agers”—those lucky enough in the disposable-soma genetic lottery to maintain healthy minds in healthy bodies long after others’ decrepitude—had fewer of these tangles than did apparently disease-free non-super-agers.

I’m not sure what to do with this information, to be honest. I suppose it would be nice for voters to have this information about prospective candidates. But, if it requires an autopsy to obtain, one could understand the reluctance of candidates to make it available.

Regardless of its cause, though, cognitive decline is the age-related symptom most widely discussed about the candidates, especially in the context of apparent “senior moments” displayed by both men. In 2021, for instance, Mr Biden seemed to forget the name of Lloyd Austin, his defence secretary. Mr Trump has confused Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, with Kim Jong Un, who leads North Korea.

First, I recently turned 58, and so far as I know, there’s no family history of Alzheimer’s. I forget names all the time. Second, while there’s no doubt in my mind that Biden’s verbal skills have declined** since his days as Vice President, the notion that he’s worse off in that sense than Trump is just bizarre.

Research suggests mental powers change with age in different ways—some declining while others improve, at least for a time. Work by Joshua Hartshorne and Laura Germine, of Harvard and the Massachusetts General Hospital respectively, supports the idea that wisdom does indeed increase with age, up to a point. Arithmetical and comprehension skills, as well as vocabulary, improve until 50, though they start to decline thereafter (see chart 2).

However, for tasks involving short-term memory (remembering things immediately after presentation) and working memory (remembering them half an hour later), it is downhill from the age of 20 or so. Some scores fall by as much as half a standard deviation below the population mean by the time someone is 85.

As the next paragraphs make clear, though, general trends don’t tell us much about specific individuals. Further, Presidents have staffs. So long as their judgment and decision-making abilities aren’t in decline, short-term memory is not that big of a concern.

All this might be grounds for caution when faced with elderly candidates. But Dr Olshansky, at the University of Illinois, is having none of it, for two reasons. One is the general point he makes about most candidates’ privileged backgrounds granting them a health-promoting environment in which to grow up. The other, specific to Mr Biden and Mr Trump, is that he thinks they may be made from sterner genetic stuff than most of their fellow beings—in other words, that they are super-agers.

From my lay vantage point, Trump does not seem particularly youthful for his age.

Mr Trump is unquestionably a child of privilege. His father was a multimillionaire businessman. Mr Biden’s family fortunes were more mixed. But he still had the leg-up of being sent to a private school as a teenager. So far, so typical. The super-ager argument is more intriguing. Four years ago, during the previous Biden-Trump contest, Dr Olshansky and five colleagues analysed what relevant data they could collect pertaining to the two men.

Both come from long-lived families, with an octogenarian and a nonagenarian parent each. That is a good predictor of longevity. But Mr Trump’s brothers died at the ages of 42 and 71 and his father developed Alzheimer’s. Both count against him in the calculation—as do his weight and lack of exercise compared with Mr Biden.

Nevertheless, Dr Olshansky concluded from these sorts of data, combined with what is publicly available about the men’s medical records, that both had a higher than average probability of surviving the following four years. Mr Biden, they reckoned, had a 95% chance compared with 82% for a typical man of his age; for Mr Trump the figures were 90% compared with 86% for his contemporaries. Notably, then, their calculations gave Mr Trump, the younger man, a worse prognosis.

Which, again, would seem obvious. They’re both old men. Trump is an unhealthy old man who seems to show no regard for his health, with the exception of refraining from alcohol consumption. Biden looks older than he is, perhaps ironically because he’s so lean, but is demonstrably more active.

As to senior moments, Dr Olshansky is inclined to write at least some of them off as sampling errors resulting from relentless scrutiny. Of an incident in June 2022 in which Mr Biden fell off his bicycle, for example, he observes that the president had caught his foot in a pedal strap, rather than losing his balance, an accident that might happen to anyone. More pertinent, he says, is the fact that a 79-year-old (as Mr Biden then was) was cycling in the first place.

Indeed.

______________
*Olshansky must be counting only those who never took any college classes at all.

**He was always famously gaffe-prone. But that was usually in the form of the Kinsley Gaffe, of accidentally speaking the truth.

FILED UNDER: 2024 Election, Health, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Bill Jempty says:

    He was always famously gaffe-prone. But that was usually in the form of the Kinsley Gaffe, of accidentally speaking the truth.

    Saying on multiple occasions that his son died in Iraq isn’t speaking the truth.

    I’ve lost a son. When a parent loses a child it is burned into their soul. That Biden can’t get this fact straight it isn’t impressive and frankly worrisome of what his mental condition is. If Biden is using this lie to impress/mislead audiences, isn’t impressive either.

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  2. gVOR10 says:

    Let’s take this a step further. There’s more to an administration than the prez. If Biden is elected, and the worst happens, Kamala Harris, or whoever, inherits Biden’s staff, who seem a competent and cooperative lot as such things go. Elise Stefanik, or whoever, gets whatever clown act of grifters and nut jobs Trump will have assembled.

    Vote Blue, no matter who.

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  3. @Bill Jempty: Critics say Biden is lying about how his son Beau died in Iraq – they are ignoring the full story.

    On the one hand, he didn’t die in Iraq, so Biden is not being clear. On the other, if he thinks that cancer is from the burn pits (which is not unreasonable–I have a friend who has a cancer diagnosis that the VA has linked to burn pits) then this not an unreasonable assertion.

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  4. The weirdly unparallel structure here is telling. Why compare the age Trump will be in November with the age Biden will be five years from now?

    Very strange–and it leaped out at me when I read it before I saw your comment.

    But it does feel of a piece that even the MSM is more focused on Biden’s age than Trump’s.

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  5. Kathy says:

    Not a prediction, but I would bet Lardass buys the farm before Biden.

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  6. Bill Jempty says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    On the one hand, he didn’t die in Iraq, so Biden is not being clear. On the other, if he thinks that cancer is from the burn pits (which is not unreasonable–I have a friend who has a cancer diagnosis that the VA has linked to burn pits) then this not an unreasonable assertion.

    As a person who has personally dealt with brain tumors for 15 years, its an unreasonable assertion.

    His son didn’t die there anymore than if I die of melanoma one day, that I died in Fort Lauderdale because I got a bad sunburn there in 1970 or 1971.

    BTW one of the two links I supplied for Biden makes mention of the burn pits.

    BTW was it a Kinsley gaffe when Biden said we’re building a railroad across the Indian ocean.

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  7. CSK says:

    It’s amusing the way the MAGAs constantly praise Trump for being young for his age and vigorous, while criticizing Biden for being feeble, doddering, and senile.

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  8. DaveD says:

    @Bill Jempty: was it a Kinsey gaffe when Trump said “The Contential Army took over the airports”

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  9. CSK says:

    @DaveD:

    “Nobody knew health care would be so hard.” — Donald J. Trump

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  10. becca says:

    @DaveD: And was it a Kinsley gaffe when Trump said Orban was the leader of Turkey?
    One thing we all know, Trump saying he actually won the popular vote in 2016 and that Biden won illegitimately in 2020 are just outright lies.

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  11. steve says:

    The VA recognizes brain cancers in people exposed to burn pits as presumptively coming from that exposure, most head and neck cancers actually. AFAICT, looking at what Mt Sinai said, he had a glioblastoma, a brain cancer with a bad prognosis. Median age of diagnosis is mid 60s but Biden was diagnosed at age 43. While you cant really know the precise cause of his cancer, the young age at diagnosis coupled with the exposure means burn pit exposure would be the leading candidate.

    https://www.va.gov/resources/presumptive-cancers-related-to-burn-pit-exposure/

    Steve

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  12. Scott says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: @Bill Jempty:

    As a person who has personally dealt with brain tumors for 15 years, its an unreasonable assertion

    Try telling that to veterans who point to 50s atomic bomb tests as a source of their illness. Tell that to Vietnam-era victims of Agent Orange. Tell that to the folks who drank contaminated Camp LeJeune water. It is not unreasonable to assume a connection.

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  13. Bill Jempty says:

    @Scott: glioblastoma is a very common brain tumor, I believe the most common. John McCain died from it. He was a malignant melanoma survivor. Like I am too and melanoma can metastasize* into glioblastoma. As can other cancers.

    Beau Biden died of glioblastoma. In most cases, the cause of a glioblastoma is unknown. Beau Biden didn’t die in Iraq.

    * My tumors aren ‘t a glioblastoma. If they had been I would have died more than 10 years ago. i’M HARDLY a record. The late Kim Wheeler lived with Stage IV melanoma over 25 years.

  14. Bill Jempty says:

    @CSK: We have two presidential candidates who are losing their marbles. Most partisans of either party deny their choice is losing or lost it but say the other party’s candidate has.

    I’m a lifelong registered Democrat who back in my blogging days ridiculed both Republicans and Democrats. To pretend one party is Scot free is just….I’m forgetting the term. Intellectually dishonest.

  15. Matt says:

    @Bill Jempty: Man you have been working overtime on your bothersiderness. Trump is out there barely speaking complete sentences but it’s Biden that’s losing his marbles. Every other day Trump spews forth a word salad that doesn’t make sense but sure that’s the same as Biden saying something you don’t agree with…

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  16. CSK says:

    @Bill Jempty:

    Actually, I never claimed that either party was scot-free of doing any such thing.

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  17. DK says:

    Anyone who looks at Biden’s record, or listened to his Jan. 6 speech last week, and claims he’s losing his marbles is not telling the truth.

    I watched the speech. Biden is not losing his marbles. He’s an old man who has long had a stutter, and he sometimes stumbles over his words. So what? Not an impediment to sighing legislation and nominating judges.

    FWIW, neither is Trump losing his marbles. He knows where he is and what he’s doing, and it’s sinister. Being a lazy, ignorant, dishonest old man with narcissistic personality disorder is not the same thing as psychosis.

    These are serious times. People should judge the candidates on serious issues — like their plans for democracy, climate change, voting rights, etc. But Americans love blowing elections by getting focused on irrelevant nonsense instead, like emails and likeability and “who I’d rather have a beer with.” Silly!

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  18. al Ameda says:

    @Bill Jempty:
    @gVOR10:

    Let’s take this a step further. There’s more to an administration than the prez. If Biden is elected, and the worst happens, Kamala Harris, or whoever, inherits Biden’s staff, who seem a competent and cooperative lot as such things go. Elise Stefanik, or whoever, gets whatever clown act of grifters and nut jobs Trump will have assembled.
    Vote Blue, no matter who.

    Dead on.
    I will be voting for the one major Non-Trump candidate on the ballot, Joe Biden.
    Let me be clear on this:
    Do I wish Democrats had a younger viable candidate? Yes, of course.
    Do I wish Senate Republicans had the courage to convict Trump so that we wouldn’t be facing the deeply warped possibility that Trump will be re-elected? You’d better believe it.
    So no matter what negative anecdotes about Biden are thrown at the wall, there is no chance I would vote for Trump or any 3rd party alternative.

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  19. @Bill Jempty:

    As a person who has personally dealt with brain tumors for 15 years, its an unreasonable assertion.

    I am certainly sorry about your health condition.

    And you are entitled to your opinion, as I am to mine.

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  20. @DK: I concur. Neither is losing their marbles and Trump knows what he is doing and saying.

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  21. Gustopher says:

    @DK:

    But Americans love blowing elections by getting focused on irrelevant nonsense instead, like emails and likeability and “who I’d rather have a beer with.” Silly!

    At least the Biden/Trump contests are between people who don’t drink, so we can get past that. Maybe.

    Remember when America decided they would rather have a drink with George W. Bush than John Kerry, despite Bush (allegedly) not drinking in years? Did Americans not know? Did they want to send Bush into a relapse bender? Or did they just so not want to drink with Kerry that anyone was preferable, even a recovering alcoholic?

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  22. Richard Pohl says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: The right wing media has successfully exploited the substantial ageism in our culture. This has contributed to more concern with Biden’s mental fitness than with Trump’s. Even intelligent and fair minded commentators can unconsciously absorb such propaganda. For example, fairly evaluating declines in a candidate’s grammatical complexity would require careful systematic sampling of Biden and Trump’s past and current statements. Has any analysis of this actually been done?

  23. Andy says:

    Seeing a lot of rationalization and whistling past the graveyard…

    This is my experience:

    – My sister at 65 was always kind of ditzy but started getting forgetful. Things quickly spiraled, and within a year, I had legal guardianship, and she was institutionalized for a form of dementia called FTD (the same thing Bruce Willis has). Within a couple of years, she could do nothing for herself – nothing.
    – My mom at 76 was healthy and fairly active with some short term memory loss, living in her own house. She slipped on the stairs and broke her hip. Things cascaded from there, and in two months, she was dead.
    – My dad was Biden’s age when he died and about the same as him physically, but not as sharp mentally. I had planned on meeting him and my stepmom at Canyonlands NP for camping and hiking when he wasn’t feeling well and he went in to get it checked out. Turned out he aspirated some food while eating and developed pneumonia. Things cascaded from there, and he was dead in 10 days.
    – My stepmom, after my dad died, sold their house and moved up to their cabin in the mountains. She was the toughest woman I’ve even known. Very active, very mentally sharp, overall in great health for late 70’s compared to her peers. She kept a low profile during Covid, but we planned another trip to Canyonlands for camping and hiking and kept regularly in touch. I didn’t hear from her as normal one week, and her sisters called me concerned and said she missed their normal Zoom. So I drove up to the mountains and found her dead. She had laid down for her usual afternoon nap and never woke up.

    The point of all this is that old people are not resilient. Old people do not bounce back. Old people are one injury, one sickness away from a series of cascades that are likely to – at best – end with them living out their last months or weeks on hospice or in nursing care. Old people can die suddenly. Old people can have sudden and irreversible declines in mental capacity, or slow declines that can be difficult to detect.

    That Biden and Trump probably have the best medical care in the world doesn’t change that cold, hard reality. The idea that any of us can look at their mannerisms and outward appearance on the TV and interwebs and make any kind of accurate judgments about their future mental or physical fitness for perhaps the most demanding job on the planet is sophistry. We don’t know. Both have a high risk of death or incapacitation. Both are under a lot of stress which is not normally associated with physical and mental wellbeing.

    And the other cold, hard reality is that we are mostly likely stuck with both of them on the ballot.

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  24. Matt says:

    @Andy: You know a lot of that applies to anyone at any age right? A child is one cancer/disease/accident away from a series of cascades that are likely to – at best – end with them living out their last months or weeks on hospice or in nursing care.

    I mean I get your point that older people tend to not bounce back. But basing everything on a series of what ifs seems kind of silly as you can just change the what ifs to get your desired outcome. Are we no longer going to be allowed to elect people who have troublesome medical (family) histories? Following your line of reasoning Fetterman should be kicked out of the senate for having a stroke. After all stroke survivors are only one blah blah cascade blah blah hospice… Oh no you cannot run for office you had football injuries in high school that probably damaged your brain some!! etc etc..

    I’ve seen healthy 20 year olds crumble mentally due to illness leaving them in worse shape than Biden is now..

    Do I want to vote for Biden? No not really as I’ve considered his brand of corporate “centrist” democrat to be republican lite. Lately though the dark Brandon things such as the “weed pardons” and rescheduling has been bringing me around to him. It almost seems like he’s actually coming around to a more modern perspective.

    The republicans losing their fcking minds in 2001 is what started me on my journey to being a reliable democratic voter. Unfortunately the GOP seems intent on making sure I stay that way.

    Both are under a lot of stress which is not normally associated with physical and mental wellbeing.

    Watching Obama age while in office made this very clear.

  25. James Joyner says:

    @Andy: Oh, absolutely. Biden and Trump are too old to elect to another four-year term as President almost a year from now. Given that those are our very likely choices, though, I think Biden is clearly the healthier of the two.

    @Matt: It’s true that people much younger than Biden and Trump could die at any time. A college roommate of mine died of heart failure last week and was buried yesterday. But the odds are wildly different at 81 than at 61.