Age and the American Presidency: How Old is ‘Too Old’?

Is there such a thing as being too old to be president?

Americans first questioned whether a candidate was too old for the world’s highest office in 1840, with the candidacy of 67-year-old William Henry Harrison. He was 68 when he was inaugurated the nation’s ninth president. Barely a month later, a sudden bout of pneumonia ended his term – and his life.

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It was 140 years before America elected an older man to the presidency – Ronald Reagan, who was inaugurated at 69 and was 77 when he left office. Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease a few years later, but some believe he was showing signs of the disease during his second term as president.

And in 2016, Donald Trump was 70 when he took the oath of office, making him the oldest president ever inaugurated. Among the 21 Democratic candidates hoping to challenge Trump in the 2020 election are more in their 60s and 70s than ever before. Two full generations separate the youngest presidential candidate, Pete Buttigieg (37), and the oldest, Bernie Sanders (77) and Joe Biden (76).

Dr. John Holton, director of the Center for Gerontology at Concordia University, says that rather than asking if a candidate is too old for office, “a better question would be to ask what the characteristics of a bad president are. Would the answer have anything to do with the person’s age, religion, sexual orientation, disability, ethnicity, or experience? Are we confusing our assumptions about maturity with age?”

Critics of older candidates say that electing a president in their 60s or 70s can be risky. The nation’s highest office is a physically demanding job that challenges even the fittest person – and there’s no good time for a health crisis when you’re in the Oval Office. Signs of age-related cognitive decline might not become apparent until it’s too late. Holton notes, “In the fishbowl life of a U.S. president, it would be highly unlikely that [cognitive impairment] would go unnoticed or unaddressed by staff and cabinet members.”

There is also the consideration of life span. While life spans are longer than they were when the country was young, simple statistics indicate that electing a candidate in their 70s greatly increases the odds they’ll die while in office, but again, Holton points out that each candidate must be judged individually. “No more than 25% of longevity is determined by our genes, which means that 75% is determined by our choices and lifestyle behaviors,” he said.

Holton also points out that at the moment, two Supreme Court justices are performing their own demanding jobs into their 80s (to wit: 86-year-old Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s famously rigorous exercise regimen). Many voters might consider advanced age a sign of experience and wisdom – qualities that presumably anyone would consider positive qualifications for office.

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