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April 13, 2024
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How Joe Biden Could Address the Age Issue

How Joe Biden Could Address the Age Issue

In a report sure to find its place in the annals of politically damaging exonerations, Robert Hur, the special counsel appointed to investigate Joe Biden’s handling of classified documents, cleared the President of wrongdoing, and explicitly distinguished his behavior from Donald Trump’s more egregious misconduct in a similar case. But Hur, a Republican, also noted that he didn’t recommend charges in part because Biden would likely come across to a jury as a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.” Among his claims was that Biden couldn’t recall when he’d been Vice-President, or when his son Beau had died, “even within several years.”

Biden’s supporters saw the language as a gratuitous partisan attack, a speculative salvo far outside the prosecutor’s purview; his lawyers said it was “highly prejudicial.” Clearly sensing the precarity of the moment, the White House called a press conference at which Biden forcefully disputed Hur’s characterization. A few minutes later, though, in answering a question about hostage negotiations in Israel, he referred to Egypt’s President as the leader of Mexico. One Democrat declared it the “worst day of his Presidency.”

Biden’s age, of course, has long been a topic of debate, and conservatives have spent much of his Presidency sharing clips of names misremembered and words misspoken. (Last month, at an event in Iowa, Trump even mocked Biden’s stutter.) But the report, carrying the imprimatur of official inquiry, shifted the atmospheric conditions. If old age was in the air, the clouds burst open. Hur’s words were so cutting because they resonate with what many voters already think. In a swing-state poll conducted by the Times last fall, seventy-one per cent of respondents said that Biden was too old to be President; more than six in ten thought that he lacked the mental acuity for the job. (In national polling, a majority of Democrats also say he’s too old for a second term.) Other surveys suggest that being old is seen as a kind of crime: Americans are equally loath to support candidates over the age of eighty and candidates who’ve been charged with a felony. A third of respondents would set the maximum age for elected officials at seventy (and some would set it even lower). By that standard, about a fifth of the current Congress would be aged out.

Ageism certainly plays a role in such attitudes. But it would be a mistake to cast concerns about Biden’s age as simply a distillation of biases against the elderly. Trump, if reëlected, would also finish his term as an octogenarian, but voters harbor considerably fewer misgivings about his age. (It’s possible that the question of age is overshadowed by Trump’s more general incoherence; earlier this month, he claimed that Democrats were trying to change the name of Pennsylvania, and encouraged Russia to attack U.S. allies.) In Biden’s case, the public is responding to the particularities of his presentation and performance. Roll footage of his speeches from 2016 or 2020 and you don’t need to take last week’s videos out of context, or doctor them with A.I., to witness a man who has aged. He is thinner, his hair wispier. He moves more cautiously and speaks more softly.

Our minds naturally evolve over the course of our lives. In general, fluid intelligence—our ability to think creatively, reason abstractly, and learn new skills—declines with age, whereas crystallized intelligence, by which we integrate accumulated knowledge to solve problems and make decisions, tends to increase. The speed at which we process new information peaks in our twenties and thirties; our vocabularies expand into late middle age. Memory loss exists on a spectrum, and even speaking of “memory” as a monolith is misleading. (Deficits in working memory versus long-term memory, for instance, suggest different pathologies.) Geriatricians often try to differentiate normal age-related memory loss from what’s known as mild cognitive impairment. Whereas the former leads to minor and occasional lapses—where’s my phone? when’s his birthday?—the latter indicates a more significant limitation, and, in a third of cases, progresses to Alzheimer’s disease within five years. These determinations are rendered through a battery of neuropsychiatric tests and a series of careful conversations with patients and their families—not on cable news or by special counsels.

Perhaps the most accurate thing that can be said about aging is that it is a vastly heterogeneous process. Some people enter their later years and suffer a swift decline; some people stay sharp until the day they die. And yet it’s also true that for most conditions age is not a risk factor but the risk factor. An octogenarian in excellent health is more likely to have a heart attack than a sedentary thirtysomething chain-smoker is. Your risk of stroke doubles every decade after the age of fifty-five. The average eighty-four-year-old man has a ten-per-cent chance of dying next year. Averages are averages, though, and a person who assumes the Presidency is anything but average. Biden has access to world-class medical care; he works out regularly; he doesn’t drink or smoke. His father died at eighty-six, and his mother lived into her nineties, in reasonably good health until the end. Some longevity researchers, having pored over publicly available medical information about Biden and Trump, have deemed both men “super-agers.” Still, time inflicts insults in myriad ways, both small and—increasingly over the years—large.

Doctors sometimes draw a distinction between the patient in the chart and the patient in real life. The first is a product of the medical record—the sum of blood tests, X-rays, and urine samples. The second is invariably more important: how a person looks, feels, and acts; what he can do and how well he can do it. In the battle to assuage anxieties about Biden’s age, his most powerful weapon is not a physician’s note or a cognitive exam but his performance on the job and transparency on the campaign trail. Biden has helmed one of the most legislatively productive terms since Lyndon B. Johnson but, to date, has held fewer press conferences and given fewer interviews than any President since Ronald Reagan. He’s avoided town halls, and for the second straight year he skipped the interview before the Super Bowl, when Presidents usually address one of the country’s biggest audiences, opting instead for a curated TikTok video.

No doubt Biden faces an unkind asymmetry when he speaks live and unscripted: a smooth interview fades into the ether unnoticed, while each misstep ignites a social-media frenzy. But demonstrating his fitness for office may provide his surest path to reëlection and, at this stage, the country’s best shot at forestalling the chaos and dysfunction of a second Trump term. A more vigorous, more visible Biden would speak for himself. If this approach feels too risky, that’s saying something, too. ♦

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