American Opinion: Editorial: How old is ‘old,’ and when is a president ‘too old’?

From the editorial: We believe Americans should take Murthy’s word for it: No age is automatically too old to serve. Still, voters must consider a candidate’s capabilities ...

President Joe Biden arrives Oct. 7, 2021, at O'Hare International Airport aboard Air Force One for a visit to Elk Grove Village.
President Joe Biden arrives Oct. 7, 2021, at O'Hare International Airport aboard Air Force One for a visit to Elk Grove Village.
(Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
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President Joe Biden turned 80 on Nov. 20, and so far, he has given every indication he plans to run for reelection in 2024. If he were to win, his second term would conclude not long after his 86th birthday.

Too old?

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One of Biden’s would-be opponents has previously said he thinks not. Former President Donald Trump, 76, who has announced he will run again, once declared, “I would never say anyone is too old,” adding at the time that Biden and other rival candidates were making him “look very young.”

America is being led by a president well into what most people would describe as old age. But as Trump pointed out, there’s old and then there’s “old.”

Most people associate “old” with changes that go beyond a few gray hairs. As people grow old, inevitably, the heart works harder, the skin feels different, sight and hearing weaken and energy declines. Yet we all know people who seem to defy old age, working effectively and energetically well into their 80s.


The Constitution requires presidents to be at least 35 years old, but it sets no upper limit, and clearly some octogenarians are more capable than others.

Without directly addressing Biden’s age, Vice Adm. Vivek Murthy, America’s surgeon general, acknowledged as much to the Tribune Editorial Board earlier this month. “There is such a wide range between your actual age and how you perform and function and show up in the world,” Murthy observed.

“Thanks in part to advances in medicine and a greater understanding about how to stay healthy through a combination of nutrition, physical activity, medical interventions and sleep and focus on mental health,” Murthy said, “we’re learning how people can be functional and contribute to society and enjoy their lives at ages that 30 or 40 years ago people would not have thought possible.”

Research supports Murthy’s perspective. But try telling a youngster that 80 isn’t “old.” Much depends on who is making the assessment of what age is “old,” and the range can vary dramatically from person to person. In one 2021 study , researchers interviewing 300 adults at a Montreal hospital elicited answers ranging from 45 to 100.

The surgeon general recalled that as a young physician he got hooted down by his senior peers when he described a 48-year-old patient as “elderly.” Full membership in AARP is open to anyone 50 and older, though it accepts members below that age — and invitations to join the retiree group often arrive, to the shock of recipients, years ahead of the big 5-0.

A recent survey of 2,000 Americans pinpointed the age at which people consider themselves old at a surprisingly low 57. The World Health Organization states that in most of the developed world, old age is considered to begin at a still-surprisingly low 60. In the U.S., early retirees can begin collecting Social Security at 62, and Medicare typically kicks in at 65.

It should be noted that some predictable health risks correspond with age. At 65, for instance, the risks from COVID-19 become more pronounced, Murthy noted. Korean researchers who studied more than 64,000 emergency-room visits determined that older patients were more likely to be admitted for hospital stays, but the odds were considerably less for the “youngest-old,” aged 65 to 74, than for the “oldest-old” group of 85-plus.

Of course, the exceptions to those guidelines make life interesting. Consider “late bloomers,” who hit their stride in life at ages many would consider old. Colonel Sanders, of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame, opened his first franchise at 62; Nancy Pelosi became House speaker at 66, after raising five children; and American folk artist Grandma Moses started her painting career in her mid-70s.


Republican President Ronald Reagan, 73 at the time, gave a famous answer to the “too-old” question at a 1984 debate against Democratic nominee Walter Mondale, who was 56. “I will not make age an issue of this campaign,” Reagan said. “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Even Mondale laughed.

Leading up to the midterm elections, most Democratic candidates carefully avoided stating that Biden is too old to run again, even if they were thinking it. Should the GOP nominate a much younger candidate than Trump, the contrast with Biden would be impossible to miss, and potentially put a greater focus on Biden’s running mate. For his part, the president has said he will discuss running for reelection with his family over the holidays and announce a decision early next year.

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We believe Americans should take Murthy’s word for it: No age is automatically too old to serve. Still, voters must consider a candidate’s capabilities, especially if there were to be a national emergency.

Reagan used humor to defuse the focus on his age, but questions about his mental capacity continued to dog him. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease five years after he left the presidency, though there’s no evidence that he had the debilitating illness while in office.

And let’s not forget that in the 1984 election, where Reagan’s age was very much an issue, he went on to beat that whippersnapper Mondale in a landslide.

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