Caring Currents

Is Age Too Great an Alzheimer's Risk for the Presidency?

Last updated: Sep 12, 2008

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Calling this presidential election "hot" is as much an understatement as saying that watching your parents age is "challenging." As someone who writes a lot about Alzheimer's disease, however, one particular oft-mentioned presumption rankles: the notion that people are unqualified to be president at  72 (or 73, 74, or 75, to run through a full term) because they might get Alzheimer's disease.

Political persuasions aside, the debate is a good opportunity to revisit the facts about who gets Alzheimer's.

Fact: Alzheimer's disease can technically strike anybody, but will not strike everybody. Half a million people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s have "early onset" cases. Classically, Alzheimer's is a disease of aging -- but with emphasis on the word disease. Alzheimer's is not a normal or inevitable consequence of getting older.

Fact: The majority of 72-year-olds do not have the disease. Only 5 percent of people ages 71 to 79 have dementia, according to a 2007 analysis funded by the National Institutes of Health.  That means 95 percent do not have the disease.

Fact: Scientists still aren't sure exactly what causes Alzheimer's, but we now have good evidence on risk factors:

  • Being over 85 (this is when cases spike, to 18 percent of those in their 80s)
  • Having type 2 diabetes (major risk factor)
  • Being overweight to obese in midlife (major risk factor)
  • Being a woman (statistically, more women get it)
  • Parental history of Alzheimer's (especially your mother's side)
  • Smoking
  • Low education level
  • History of head trauma
  • Unbalanced diet
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Little mental and social stimulation

Each of the presidential and VP candidates carries a risk, although their general fitness and stimulation levels are pretty protective. McCain's mother is tack-sharp at 95, but perhaps he sustained head injuries in Vietnam. Obama smokes. Palin is female. Biden has had surgeries for two brain aneurysms.

As far as actual signs of Alzheimer's, most people around an affected person have a pretty good hunch. I'd say everyone on both tickets has had stress-related memory lapses and slips of the tongue on the high-pressure campaign trail, as YouTube will now let no one ever forget!

There's another reason to tread carefully on assumptions about Alzheimer's: Even though many pols in the current and future presidential pool are still in mid-middle age (Obama is 47, Palin is 44, Hillary Clinton is 60, Jindal is 37, to name a few), they'll be aging right along with the rest of us. These questions will continue for many campaigns.

In part, we're only discussing age and the presidency in general because people -- candidates -- are living ever longer, and with better health care. Life expectancy was about 35 when elder statesman George Washington took office at age 57. His advanced age was considered a sign of wisdom.

Image by Flickr user respres, used under the Creative Commons attribution license.