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As America’s political landscape continues to evolve ahead of the 2024 elections, there’s one critical concern that keeps coming up among citizens and observers: the advanced age of our country’s top leaders.
Our country will elect a new president and either reelect members of Congress or decide to toss them out. It’s clear to most Americans that we are being led by an entrenched political class. Many lawmakers have served in public office for decades. This situation puts our country at risk for stagnation and a disconnect from the evolving needs of the populace. It also leaves leaders in Congress and the White House at risk for possible potential physical and cognitive decline at the highest levels of government.
In the last year, the country has witnessed frequent gaffes, stumbles, momentary lapses, and other concerning signs of possible decline in several of its political leaders including President Joe Biden (age 80), Sen. Dianne Feinstein (age 90), and Sen. Mitch McConnell (age 81).
Acknowledging declining health while avoiding ageism requires a nuanced approach. Ageism can perpetuate discrimination, however, denying absolutes truths and signs of deteriorating ability to serve among our top leaders is dangerous to democracy.
I am a physician and can share that as we age, we all have a demonstrated and exponentially increased risk of illness including cardiovascular disease, cancer, cognitive decline, and various forms of dementia.
The American Heart Association reports that the incidence of cardiovascular disease (heart attack, stroke) in U.S. men and women is roughly 40% from 40 to 59 years, 75% from 60 to 79 years, and 86% in those above the age of 80. And the chance of having a stroke about doubles every 10 years after age 55.
Impaired cognition is also directly related to advanced age. Approximately two-thirds of Americans experience some level of cognitive loss by 70 years. The risk of dementia doubles every five years after age 65.
Historically, political leadership in our country was characterized by a continuous influx of new ideas and diverse perspectives, which would also include a younger generation. However, over the years, we have seen an increasing number of politicians remaining in office for decades. While some argue that this lengthy service experience is valuable, this prolonged tenure has resulted in complacency, an entrenchment of power structures and an elderly Congress.
In the Senate, the average age of members is 64, with nearly 65% over 60 years and a third of members over the age of 70.
Whether there should be an age limit for politicians is a complex and debatable topic. Age should not be the sole determinant of political eligibility, as people of various ages can bring valuable perspectives and experiences to the table. However, ensuring that politicians are mentally and physically capable of fulfilling their roles is crucial.
Heading into the next election cycle, voters should insist on three things from their candidates before casting their ballots:
1. Public disclosure of physician and cognitive health evaluation
Rather than a strict age limit, it might be more appropriate to have assessments of cognitive and physical fitness for individuals seeking political office and at the time of each election campaign, regardless of their age. This approach would focus on their abilities rather than imposing a blanket restriction based solely on age.
2. In-person events, including debates
The electoral process already serves as a mechanism for voters to evaluate candidates, but increasingly the country is seeing candidates refuse to debate and hold fewer in-person events. This is keeping the politicians hidden from view lessening the ability for voters to make decisions based on their perceptions of the candidates’ abilities and qualifications for office.
3. Support for term limits
Term limits can effectively address some of these concerns by allowing a regular infusion of fresh faces and ideas into the political arena. Embracing term limits is not a rejection of experience; rather, it is a recognition of rejuvenating our leadership. By limiting the time any one individual can serve in office, we ensure a more dynamic and representative political landscape and ultimately, a younger Congress.
Demanding transparency of physical and mental fitness from political candidates is not just a matter of curiosity; it is a fundamental necessity for the functioning of a healthy democracy.
Voters have the right to know about the well-being of those seeking public office, as their decisions and actions can have a profound impact on American lives and the future of the nation.
Transparency in this regard fosters trust, accountability, and the assurance that elected leaders can fulfill their duties effectively. By advocating for and upholding rigorous standards of transparency of political candidates, it can ensure a more informed and responsible electoral process, ultimately strengthening the foundations of the democratic system.