Memory Issues for People in Their Eighties

Joe Biden, who just turned 80, will be 86 in 2028 should he be re-elected and serve another four-year term as U.S. President. This has prompted political speculation whether his age is or should be a disqualifying attribute for his seeking re-election. This issue was discussed in an interesting New York Times article about memory issues facing people in their 80’s in the U.S.[1]

The article starts with the following general comments:

  • “[W]hile the risk of life-threatening diseases, dementia and death rises faster with each passing decade of a person’s life, experts in geriatrics say that people in their 80s who are active, engaged and have a sense of purposecan remain productive and healthy — and that wisdom and experience are important factors to consider.”
  • “ Biden, . . . experts agreed, has a lot going in his favor: He is highly educated, has plenty of social interaction, a stimulating job that requires a lot of thinking, is married and has a strong family network — all factors that, studies show, are protective against dementia and conducive to healthy aging. He does not smoke or drink alcohol and, according to the White House, he exercises five times a week. He also has top-notch medical care.”
  • “His race is another [positive] factor. The life expectancy for the average white, 80-year-old man is another eight years, said Dr. John Rowe, a professor of health policy and aging at Columbia University. ‘And that’s the average,’ Dr. Rowe said. ‘A lot of those 80-year-olds are already sick; they are already in the nursing home.’”
  • “Scientists who study aging stress that chronological age is not the same as biological age — and that the two often diverge as people grow older. It is true that older people tend to decline physically, and the brain also undergoes changes. But in people who are active, experts say, the brain continues to evolve and some brain functions can even improve— a phenomenon experts call the ‘neuroplasticity of aging.’”
  • “’This idea that old age is associated with only declines is not true,’ said  Dilip Jeste, a psychiatrist who has studied aging at the University of California, San Diego. ‘There are studies that have been done all over the world which show that in people who keep active physically, socially, mentally and cognitively there is increased connectivity among specific networks, and even new neurons and synapses can form in selected brain regions with older age.’”

Further comments were provided by five additional experts.

“Dr. Dan Blazer, professor emeritus and psychiatric epidemiologist at Duke University School of Medicine, who led a committee of experts that examined “cognitive aging” for the National Academy of Sciences in 2015, said, ‘Slippage of memory is something that is usual, but it is not a real deficit.’ He described such slippage this way: ‘They forget, they remember they have forgotten and they eventually remember what they have forgotten.’”

Another expert on aging, Dr. Gill Livingston, a psychiatrist at University College London, who led a commission on dementia in 2020, observed, ‘Once people reach 65, the risk of dementia doubles every five years. In general, she said, in high-income countries like the United States, dementia will affect 10 percent of people aged 80 to 84 and 20 percent of those aged 85 to 89.”

Lisa Berkman, a professor of public policy at the Harvard School of Public Health who studies health and aging, added a more nuanced view. ‘People in their 80s commonly experience declines; we shouldn’t be naïve about that. And at the same time, there is so much variability. People who are doing well and are in the top level of functioning, have the odds of going for another 10 years, of doing really well during this time and making very important contributions.’”

Jay Olshansky, an epidemiologist at the University of Illinois Chicago, names both Mr. Biden and former President Donald J. Trump, who is 76, as likely fitting the profile of “super-agers” — a ‘subgroup of people that maintain their mental and physical functioning and tend to live longer than the average person their age.’”

“Dr. Olshansky also says it is a misconception to think being president ages a person; in fact, former presidents tend to live longer, as an analysis he published in 2011 showed. Former President Jimmy Carter, who has been active well into his 90s, turned 98 last month. President George H.W. Bush was 94 when he died in 2018.”

“As the baby boom cohort ages, the number of octogenarians is growing into what experts have called a “silver tsunami.” In its 2020 Profile of Older Americans, the federal Department of Health and Human Services reported that the 85-and-older population was projected to more than double from 6.6 million in 2019 to 14.4 million in 2040.”

Reactions

On November 21, the Times published 583 comments on this article. Here are a few of them:

  • Jim K said, “If either party offers a younger candidate with a fresher and less polarizing vision/agenda for the nation, that party’s candidate will probably win the election. In my opinion, that is who the independents – the middle of the road types – would vote for.”
  • Joe Barnett said, “If he decides not to run, he can wait until the primaries and then endorse or just watch the Democrats pull from their wealth of talent to replace him.”
  • Northern D offered, “It will actually speak to Biden’s legacy if he knows when to leave and still be capable of helping his successor not matter who he or she is. In my estimation that should be sooner rather than later.”
  • Therion boston, “Step down Man! The United States needs a leader that is younger, fresher, and more vibrant. Our whole country needs to put forward a fresh face.”
  • MCM said, “The appropriate question is whether the United States can run the risk that he may not be. And the article suggests that while he has many advantages, that possibility exists.”
  • WHC says, “By their mid80s most individuals have some cognitive decline, and if there is one job where we don’t want the holder to have cognitive decline it’s president of the United States. Yes, decline is not guaranteed, but the odds are clearly rising, and shutting your eyes to it—or to declare legitimate worries ageism, as though he’s just a laid off fifty something—isn’t serving your readers.”

Although I voted for Mr. Biden in the 2020 election, I think he should not run for re-election because of concerns about the potential adverse effects of his aging during a second term and of some voters declining to vote for him for that reason. I also think that many of the younger voters, who turned out in great numbers in the 2020 election, would appreciate having a younger candidate to vote for. My recommendations: U.S. Senators Cory Booker or Amy Klobuchar.

As a mid-80’s white male, retired lawyer with three university degrees who is in relatively good health and active in various ways, I am glad to learn that my age does not automatically mean that I am destined to suffer significant physical and mental decline in the balance of my 80’s. However, I acknowledge that my short-term memory is not as sharp as it used to be. When I mentioned this issue to a friend of my generation, he loaned me a book, “Remember” that emphasizes forgetting is part of being human while some memories are built to last only a few seconds and others can last a lifetime. The book’s author, Lisa Genova, is a neuroscientist and acclaimed novelist. I look forward to reading this book and hopefully getting tips on improving my memory.[2]

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[1] Stolberg, The President Is Turning 80. Experts Say Age Is More Than a Number, N.Y. Times (Nov. 20, 2022),

[2] Author Spotlight: Lisa Genova, Harmony Books.

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As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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