Op-ed: Presidential candidates should be screened for cognitive decline

Amelia Ballingall, news staff

With former President Donald Trump recently announcing his 2024 campaign and current President Joe Biden considering the same path, public concern is rising over whether their advancing age is suitable for the role. Trump was 70 years old when he entered office in 2016 and Biden reached his 80th birthday just days ago, so both candidates would hold the highest political position in the country as octogenarians for some or all of their tenure if elected. 

Although presidential candidates must meet an age minimum of 35 years old, because of the unpredictable nature of health, they should not have an age maximum. Rather, they should be evaluated on their mental capabilities before taking the position. 

Aging is associated with physical difficulties, such as arthritis and a proclivity to falling, and mental ailments, such as dementia. While the likelihood of these afflictions increases with age, they are not guaranteed in elderly populations and not impossible in the youth. 

Many issues that disrupt normal brain functioning are not visible to the naked eye, let alone through the lens of a camera. The majority of the population only sees candidates through short press conferences or debates, which makes it difficult to determine their mental capacity.

Dementia, the general term associated with impaired thought processes affecting everyday activity, can be brushed under the rug by sufferers in its early stages, thought of as a momentary lapse in judgment or ordinary forgetfulness. However, it can quickly become obvious through cognitive, functional and behavioral tests. These tests reveal a person’s mental abilities and, if there is cognitive decline, how much it affects their daily life. With any level of decreased mental functioning comes difficulties in memory, reasoning and communication, all of which are necessary skills for a president to carry out their duties. 

Many parts of a presidential campaign are organized and prepared by the candidate’s team, leaving one main responsibility for the candidate: to be the face of the campaign. This means if the candidate does have some type of dementia, it may be hidden by their team because much of the campaign work does not fall on them individually. 

Although presidential candidates deliver speeches and meet voters to gain support, their words are not their own, leaving one to ponder the truth of their cognitive abilities. Presidents began hiring speechwriters in 1921, when the life expectancy was barely 60. With modern medicine, that number now reaches well into the 70s. The writing position also came into existence at a time when diseases disproportionately affecting the elderly population were newly recognized, with the term ‘Alzheimer’s disease’ — referencing the most common type of dementia — first being coined in 1910

Currently, the presidential role only has three requirements: one must meet or exceed the minimum age of 35, be a natural born citizen and have lived in the United States for at least 14 years. These restrictions were established in 1787 in the Constitution and have not been updated since. They were written at a time when there was little to no awareness of mental health and when the life expectancy barely exceeded the minimum age of the position. 

There was also less of a complexity of issues at the time. With the rise of the information age, technologies and healthcare are constantly changing and new knowledge is available immediately. Presidents must be able to respond quickly to both national and global affairs and be aware of changes going on in the world as they happen. This rapid thinking requires a sharp mind. 

Presidential candidates should show proof of a strong mental capacity before they begin their time in office. While in some cases, cognitive disabilities can have a rapid onset, they generally move in stages over the course of multiple years.

Dementia and other forms of cognitive impairment are also not confined to the elderly population. Many people with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease are in their 40s or 50s when diagnosed, which nears the bare minimum of presidential age. Anyone can be at risk for these afflictions, meaning that screening for symptoms should be universal for the role, not just for the older population. 

Cognitive impairment is sometimes thought to be inevitable as one ages, but many people live long, fulfilled lives without any significant mental decline. Dementia, the most widely known and impactful type of age-related decrease in brain function, only affects a small portion of the population, and while it is worth screening for the disease, it is not worth ruling out viable presidential candidates solely based on advancing age. 

The combination of advancing age and technology can also have a detrimental effect on the younger population when it comes to electing leaders. Older candidates may not be aware of the main issues impacting young voters. Although age can come with experience, older generations might not know about the rapid changes happening in an internet-focused world. As the difference between voting age and candidates’ ages grows, new voters must be conscious of how much their candidates understand their generation’s difficulties. 

As life expectancy, medicine and awareness of cognitive disorders continue to change, so should the requirements one must meet to hold the highest seat of power in the nation. The president of the United States must be able to run for the position with their mental processes intact so they are prepared to take over the many demanding responsibilities of the position and lead the country with a sound state of mind.

 Amelia Ballingall is a second-year speech-language pathology and audiology major. She can be reached at [email protected].