Too old for president? Health and fitness a better question

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(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Science says age is only a number, not a proxy for physical and mental fitness. But with three Democrats in their 70s vying to challenge the oldest first-term president in American history, age’s importance will be tested as never before.

Only a few years separate President Donald Trump, 73, from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, 77, and former Vice President Joe Biden, 76. But as Trump mocks Biden for verbal missteps, suggesting age has slowed his Democratic rival, both Sanders and Biden have conspicuously showcased their physical activity during the campaign.

Cameras have captured a third top Democratic contender, 70-year-old Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, taking high-energy jogs around rallies where she stays hours afterward to snap photos with supporters.

While the risks of disease and death rise substantially in the 70s and beyond, many specialists caution that the age on your driver’s license means far less than how healthy you are and how well you function — what’s sometimes called your “biologic age.”

“I’m not going to sugarcoat aging,” said well-known aging researcher S. Jay Olshansky of the University of Illinois at Chicago. But, he added, “how many times they’ve traveled around the sun should not be a litmus test for the presidency.”

Still, it’s not straightforward to figure out just how fit these septuagenarians — or any candidates — really are. No law requires them to disclose their medical records. A doctor’s note or some test results may reveal snippets. Those shed little light on one of the biggest questions about aging leaders: How likely is their memory or overall mental acuity to decline?

After all, many neuroscientists question if President Ronald Reagan, 73 when re-elected, showed signs of cognitive trouble during his second term. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s years after leaving office.

Checkups do offer a clue.

“A healthier heart, for example, is going to translate to a healthier brain,” said Dr. Anne Newman, who directs the University of Pittsburgh Center for Aging and Population Health.

Likewise some habits are critical: a good diet, exercise and enough sleep. Trump, a fast-food fan and late-night tweeter who doesn’t exercise regularly, has scoffed at that advice. Still, his doctorearlier this year said he’s overall in good health despite needing to lose weight and stick with cholesterol-lowering medicine.

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