In 1981, Ronald Reagan took office, becoming the oldest non-incumbent candidate to become president of the United States at 69. In this upcoming election, a new president could take that honor, probing the question, how old is too old?
A project published by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis changes how age is defined; as not by the years someone has lived, but by the years someone has left to live.
“We categorize people as being old if their life expectancy is 15 years or less,” Warren Sanderson, an economics professor at Stony Brook University and a member of the project, said.
Using the most recent life expectancy data, Sanderson found that Hillary Clinton, 68, has a life expectancy of 18.3 more years, and Donald Trump, 70 has a life expectancy of 14.6 more years. The findings bring into question whether or not age even matters in the election. Helmut Norpoth, a political science professor at Stony Brook University, and the creator of a political model that predicted Trump would win the presidency, said no. He cited Reagan’s run for re-election in 1984 at 73 years old.
“He looked a little shaky in the first debate and he was showing his age, and he didn’t do too well in the opinion of people,” Norpoth said.
Two days after the debate, a poll conducted by Newsweek/Gallop, found that 54 percent of voters favored Reagan’s opponent, Walter Mondale. Reagan went on to become president once more, beating Mondale.
“In the second debate he said something like, ‘I will not for political reasons exploit my opponent’s youth,’ and he deflected it,” Norpoth said. “I think that after Reagan broke that barrier of people over 70, becoming president, I don’t think age will be an issue.”
In November 2015, a McClatchey-Marist poll found that 71 percent of registered voters said older age was a benefit, and 67 percent of the youngest voters said they would support someone older than 65.
“In Sparta, to be in the governing council, you had to be at least 60 years old,” Steven Austad, a distinguished professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the scientific director at The American Federation for Aging Research, said. “Only recently was it decided that with age you get more foolish.”
But not every voter shares Austad’s opinion.
“I feel as if many people are discouraged by the fact that they are so old,” senior biology major Faraj Lak said of the candidates. “A younger president would represent a leader who is more physically fit for his job and is also more likely to reflect the same goals as younger voters.”
Trump’s campaign team released a document on his website of his most recent health examination completed by his physician of more than 30 years. On the website, Trump’s team wrote that he is in “excellent health” and can meet the demands of the campaign as well as the responsibilities of the presidency.
“People over the age of 40 want to be seen as older, so it’s no accident that Donald Trump would release a medical report from his doctor saying that he has the physical health of a 35-year-old but he clearly doesn’t,” Andrew Scharlach, a professor of aging at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare, said.
Another factor to consider is how a woman running for president is perceived versus how a a man running for president is perceived, Scharlach said. He added that older men in American society are perceived more positively than older women.
“There’s iconic images of older women as the hag, or the nice but incompetent and frail grandma,” he said.
Despite the talk of Clinton’s age, Trump and Clinton are only two years apart. Experts believe that both are healthy and can live to the extent of both terms if elected.
“So in that slightly arbitrary criteria, Trump is old but Clinton is not,” Sanderson said. “That’s basically the story, their difference in age is trivial.”
But over the course of the campaign, age has only been one factor causing controversies for the candidates.
“I don’t think age even matters,” junior biology major Nadira Akter said. “One is crazy, and the other is suspicious.”