President Biden, Ageism and Cognition
Prejudicial tropes about older adults are becoming commonplace because of the presidential race — and some people are pushing back
Much of the attention paid to President Biden's age, 81, is negative — a topic of endless punditry, commentary, polling questions and ageist comedy bits. Saturday Night Live, for example, portrayed the president as a doddering fool with no short-term memory and a fear of climbing a ladder to hang Halloween decorations. Meanwhile, mentions of ageism are appearing more often in such diverse media outlets as Time, Fortune and The Philadelphia Inquirer.
The World Health Organization defines ageism as "the stereotypes (how we think), prejudice (how we feel) and discrimination (how we act) towards others or oneself based on age."
"It's fantastic that news stories these days talk about ageism," says activist Ashton Applewhite, author of "This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism and a Next Avenue Influencer in Aging. "Only a year ago this wouldn't have happened. The first step is awareness."
Age Is Real, but Not Everything
Is it ever legitimate to be concerned about age in a candidate for public office? For instance, are polling questions about a candidate's age inherently ageist?
"Age is real," Applewhite responds. "It's part of our identity. But it's ageist to attribute a value to age, whether negative or positive. And it's no more acceptable to dismiss a candidate on the basis of age than it to do so on the basis of their gender or color."
"Humor is a way to deflect anxiety, but these jokes rely on stereotyping, which is harmful. And discrimination isn't funny."
What about making fun of older people? Is that ageist? Yes, Applewhite says. "Humor is a way to deflect anxiety, but these jokes rely on stereotyping, which is harmful. And discrimination isn't funny."
Of course, it is legitimate to be concerned whether any candidate for office is equipped to handle the job. We want our representatives to be sharp, so we should be concerned about cognition, intelligence, memory, decision making and stamina — in candidates of any age. I am a fit woman in my seventies, and I've wondered whether I would have the stamina for such demanding work.
Cognition is a term for the mental processes that take place in the brain, such as thinking, attention, language, learning and perception — interacting skills that allow us to acquire, process and apply knowledge. It also encompasses memory, critical thinking, problem-solving and decision-making.
What We Know and Don't Know
We know that aging can slow executive functioning, memory and speed at which we process information. While these abilities vary greatly among older adults, as they do among people of all ages, much less is known about positive cognitive changes that aging brings, and how they balance out these deficits.
In her chapter on the older brain, Applewhite describes how older adults have access to more information, how attention gradually expands, and this wider worldview allows for better judgment. Older brains are more flexible and resilient in managing emotions, and our capacity for integration increases, which is a sign of intelligence at any age.
Older adults can combine real-life information with their significant store of knowledge. This means we can perform better than younger people at mental tasks that require depths of experience or knowledge, and we can read moods and navigate tricky situations more skillfully.
Our greater experience and the ability to sift through, assimilate and prioritize information might be referred to as wisdom.
Yes, Our Brains Change
Older brains use many more connections than younger ones because we've made many connections over our lives. Yes, and that's why it takes longer to find a word, because it's a bigger job than it is for younger folks with less of those memory files and connections.
"A growing body of research shows how attitudes toward aging affect health in general and cognition in particular."
It's also true that we can deter cognitive decline through building cognitive reserves. We do this by challenging our brains, through exercising and mastering new skills requiring complexity and problem solving, as well as by maintaining social networks. Physical activity is clearly important to promote stamina. It would seem that the many tasks required of a president would boost those cognitive reserves.
None of this negates the challenges that aging brings, but these are profoundly enabled and exacerbated by ageist culture and systems: "A growing body of research shows how attitudes toward aging affect health in general and cognition in particular," Applewhite said.
She recommended Yale psychologist Becca Levy's book "Breaking The Age Code: How Our Attitudes Toward Aging Determine How Long and How Well You Live." In it, Levy, also a Next Avenue Influencer in Aging, asserts that many health problems considered solely a function of aging, such as memory loss, hearing decline and cardiovascular problems, are heavily influenced by negative beliefs about aging particular to American and Western societies.
Culture's Effect on Cognition
Levy's research in Japan illustrated how in cultures that traditionally value older people, and appreciate the perspective they bring, many more live into their 90s and 100s with little physical or mental deterioration. A study of Chinese elders, for instance, revealed their memory to be equal to that of the younger generation.
Most inspiring, Levy shows that when people consciously change their negative ageist beliefs, they not only tend to live longer and more healthily, they can actually reverse cognitive decline and improve their memory function. Another powerful finding: less ageism equals less Alzheimers. Examples in "Breaking the Age Code" can help older adults prepare for, and live into, our "third acts" — the life stage after work or child-rearing.
Contrary to popular belief and expectation, research suggests life improves with age for many people, sometimes referred to as the "Happiness U-curve." We are more content, better able to enjoy the moment and less afraid.
If this is so, why do we approach aging with dread and work so hard to deny its progress? Why the billion-dollar industries designed to both motivate and fulfil people's desire to look younger? Why do commercials treat aging and turning into our parents as if that's a bad thing? Clearly, they work because they trigger fear of being or looking old to sell their products. It's therefore useful — and possibly much cheaper — to know that these fears are culturally induced, not decreed by aging itself.
At the same time, many people expect medical advancements to extend the lifespan of many, thus all the handwringing about our aging population. Which brings us to the great paradox: no matter how apprehensive they may be, nobody wants to die young. "Ageism," as Applewhite points out, "is prejudice against our future selves."
Before we lay that prejudice to rest, we need to consider another issue that Applewhite points out as relevant in this discussion, which is that of ableism. Ageism and ableism are often conflated: In her blog Yo, Is This Ageist?, she points to The New Yorker cover of October 2, 2023, entitled "The Race for Office." The illustration shows Biden; Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, also 81; former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, 83; and President Trump, 77; using walkers in a footrace.
Our Myth of Individualism
"If these people actually used mobility aids, would that disqualify them for political office? In an ageist and ableist world, it might," Applewhite writes.
No wonder politicians and regular folks work hard to hide any sign of disability, as if a need for help is a legitimate cause for shame or dismissal.
"Ageism is prejudice against our future selves."
It's not unnatural to worry about how our bodies and minds may change. But this bleeds into our particularly American mythos of rugged individualism, which is harmful as it creates prejudice against asking for help.
In reality we all need help throughout our lives; we are totally interdependent. How does this relate to the presidency? Who that person counts on for help, for the best expertise and who he or she collaborates with is vitally important — and such choices are a function of intelligence and experience.
This is what we need from those who govern us, not that they be young lone rangers, but that they have the intelligence and humility to seek out the best information and support in decision making. This is the model of democratic as opposed to autocratic leadership: decision making may be a little slower but will be infused with greater wisdom.
Let's remember that many of us will reach President Biden's age — if we have not already. Hopefully we are or will be members of communities and families that will care for us as we care for them.
And, hopefully, we will be treated with more respect.