Too Old for Constant Crises?

By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, October 21, 2008

We gather for dinner, all of us friends of a certain age. We're healthy, busy, enjoying this phase of life when the children are grown and we're free to pursue different dreams. We settle in with food and drink. And talk about the election and the issue of age.

"As a healthy 72-year-old man, I don't have the stamina to be president," says one of the guests. I look at him: William S. "Sandy" Lieber, who practiced medicine for many decades in Connecticut. Sandy is physically strong; he has an athletic build, an infectious smile and an expansive, quick mind. Four years ago he sailed across the Atlantic with several friends, almost all of them in their 60s.

Too old to be president?

"That's ageism," I cry, and I jump all over him: "As a healthy 72-year-old male, you have decades in front of you. We belong to the longevity generation. We are as physically and mentally fit as someone a decade younger in our grandparents' generation."

Sandy nods and smiles. Yes, this is true. Longevity has given the country's graying population a biological bonus of better health in the decades after 50. But . . .

By now the other guests are jumping in. One woman says she's fitter in her 60s than she was in her 40s. Another is more cautious. She just lost her husband at age 74. Another guest, a businessman who "retired" in his 50s and now works his small farm, just grins.

Age has advantages, I point out. Research shows that in general older people are better able to regulate their emotions, nurture relationships and put crises in perspective. After 9/11, mental health professionals found that older people responded with more calm and confidence than men and women in their 20s or 30s. Some had been through World War II. Many remembered the Cuban missile crisis and the nuclear threat of the Cold War. People with a few wrinkles are veterans of crises and survival. That makes for a steadier hand on the tiller of power.

Sandy agrees there are obvious benefits, that a steady hand is crucial in leadership of the world. He's all for older people in positions of influence.

But there's no denying physiological reality, continues Sandy. He points to a conference report on the endocrinology of aging by Johannes D. Veldhuis, a professor of internal medicine at the University of Virginia Health System in Charlottesville. All those systems that regulate function are quietly backsliding in our bodies. That's why older people are more susceptible to Type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer's disease, for example.

Aging, states the report, results from "a greater disorderliness of regulatory mechanisms," a cellular rebelliousness in the command-and-control structure of the body. And that in turn results "in reduced robustness of the organism" . . . of you and me, for example.

So maybe there's a little physiological slippage, I concede. But don't the advantages of being older outweigh this silent neuro-endocrine deterioration?

In many spheres of life, yes, says Sandy. But not in the presidency!

We all stare at him. We don't want to hear this.

The job is too stressful, Sandy goes on. It's not one crisis--not one 9/11 or one Wall Street meltdown, but a steady state of crisis, 24/7, for four, maybe eight years. Too much for any aging organism, he says.

He looks back on the trip he made across the Atlantic, three weeks in a sailboat, old men and the sea. But it was not an easy sail. They encountered several storms, and the stress wore them down. "We became fatigued . . . tempers flared. . . . I just wanted the voyage to be over." In the past, he could have risen very comfortably to these kinds of challenges, he says. But he noticed a change in himself. "It surprised me."

Better to go out sailing for a day and then come back to a safe harbor. That's what he likes to do now. "I'm happier than ever before," he says. "I have far greater control over my life than ever before."

How different from the past, when he was an obstetrician on call and accustomed to being awakened at all hours. Now, he says, "my tolerance is less." He has shifted priorities to volunteer work and enjoying more time with friends and family.

Not possible in the White House. Being president in a compressed, globalized world is like running an urban emergency room, he explains. "Things are unraveling; things are coming at you all the time. There is no surcease."

By now we're eating dessert, and we've come to some consensus: Personal vitality and physical robustness are highly variable across the life span. John McCain, the oldest candidate to run for a first term as president, may feel he's up to the challenge. But around this table, there's more ambivalence. At this stage, we have no interest in uninterrupted stress.

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