Americans are concerned about the effects of age on national leaders
By the end of this year, 34 members of the U.S. Senate will have celebrated a birthday above the 70-year mark. On the other side of the Capitol, 74 officeholders in the House of Representatives will have done the same. Combined, septuagenarians and older account for a little over 20 percent of Congress. While the total median age across both chambers is just 58, that upper range includes some of the nation’s most influential leaders.
Across Washington, the birthdays are adding up, and Americans are taking notice. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., turned 81 in February. On Wednesday, he froze mid-sentence during a news conference in Kentucky. He had a similar lapse in July, and suffered a concussion from a fall earlier this year.
After his latest on-camera freeze, U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., called McConnell “not fit for office.”
“Severe aging health issues and/or mental health incompetence in our nation’s leaders MUST be addressed,” she tweeted.
Jared Cornwall, a recent college graduate and Democratic voter in Michigan, agrees.
“I want them to be mentally prepared for any crisis that we face,” Cornwall said. “When you’re 80 years old, I don’t think anyone can be mentally prepared [to respond to] what’s happening.”
Dianne Feinstein, California’s 90-year old Democratic senator, suffered a fall in her house earlier this month that took her back to the hospital; her second stay in 2023. In February, a severe case of shingles forced Feinstein into a 10-week hospitalization that kept her away from her congressional duties. When she eventually returned, the physical strain was evident.
But not all 80- and 90-somethings are the same. Sherri Snelling, a gerontologist and CEO of the Caregiving Club, studies the biological, psychological, and sociological components of aging. She points out that other similarly aged members of Congress have performed their duties without incident. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, is 89 years old. Aside from a hip surgery, his advanced age has yet to make headlines.
“Some of the commentary that’s coming out of pundits and national media … they really don’t understand cognition,” Snelling said. “We just assign that if you’re older your brain function is not going to be as good and that’s actually not true. That concerns me.”
Snelling noted that exposure to stress, poor physical health, and the presence of other factors can lead to physical and mental decline. Assessing a candidate’s mental acuity, Snelling says, should occur on a case-by-case basis, regardless of age.
Still, Snelling said McConnell’s and Feinstein’s incidents were cause for concern.
“But I would look at those on an individual basis—I wouldn’t say, across the board, ‘everyone over the age of 80 needs to go,’” she said. “I hope and pray the people around them love them enough to tell them ‘you know what? This might be the time to take the bow.’”
In poll results released Monday, the Associated Press and NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 77 percent of respondents think President Joe Biden at age 80 is too old to be effective for the duration of another term. He is already the oldest president the nation has ever had. Fifty-one percent of participants shared a similar concern about former President Donald Trump, who is 77.
Cornwall believes he’s seen enough. He places age among the top five factors that will decide whom he votes for in the 2024 elections, and he worries about the lack of variety. When asked why he believes many of the younger candidates haven’t gained much traction compared to the front-runners, Cornwall noted that younger demographics tend to vote less. Among 18- to 34-year-olds, voter turnout was about 57 percent in the 2020 election, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. About 75 percent of Americans age 65 and older voted in the same election.
Jim Curry, the Director of Graduate Studies at the University of Utah’s political science department, says that might be part of the puzzle. But another reason could be that Americans simply live longer, more productive lives—including elected representatives.
McConnell is now 10-0 in elections. Someone with that kind of track record shouldn’t be underestimated, Curry said, adding that his leadership and experience in the Senate have been instrumental to the functioning of the GOP.
In both chambers of Congress, seniority was once directly tied to committee leadership. Some of the most powerful people on Capitol Hill also tended to be the oldest by default.
“Up until the 1970s seniority was the sole determining factor of whether you were chair,” Curry said. “Now you have to be selected by your party. The party leadership plays a large role in making those decisions … [seniority] still plays a role, but it used to play a super-decisive role.”
He added that the conversation on age in Washington tends to reemerge every few decades. He doesn’t expect it to last very long: “It’s hard to make predictions, but I do think it’s probably a blip. We’re in a moment of transition, anyway. The leadership in the House has already turned over … In the next few years you’re going to have a situation where this is less talked about because it’s less visible.”
He does, however, expect it to play a prominent role in the upcoming presidential and congressional elections. Both Biden and Trump would conclude a second term in January of 2029. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, that would take them well beyond the life expectancy in the United States, just 76.4 years old.