Can the Nation Afford a Senior Citizen As President? The Age Factor in the 1996 Election and Beyond

Disabling illness has been widely observed among national leaders. This is hardly unexpected because many of them govern at an age when there is a high incidence of debilitating disease. Age became an important issue during the presidential campaign of 1996 because Senator Dole was the oldest candidate ever nominated for a first term. Polls demonstrated a substantial level of concern in the electorate, particularly among older Americans.

The heightened risk of disability or death from heart disease, stroke, and cancer at age 70 and over was one important consideration. It raised doubts as to whether a 73-year-old president would be able to fulfill his implicit contract to serve 208 weeks in office. A second related element was the profound change in cognitive capacities known to be associated with those diseases, even when the symptoms and physical impairment are stable or have improved. Finally, quite separate from the cognitive impairment of illness, age itself carries with it on average a decline in mental acuity, efficient information processing, memory, problem solving, and other requisites of effective decision making. Many older voters reacted to Dole as they did because of their awareness that their own memory, concentration, and energy levels had diminished over the years, sometimes drastically.

In spite of the national concern about job discrimination of any kind, including that based on age, it seems clear that mandatory retirement for chief executive officers at the age of 65 will continue to be an important tenet of our great corporations. Similarly, the most demanding job in the world--the U.S. presidency--need not be imposed on senior citizens. Congress should craft a resolution expressing its conviction that 65 should be the upper age limit for candidates running for a first term as president of the United States.