It’s no secret that at 81, President Biden is the oldest sitting president in U.S. history. And whether the current frontrunners for either party win the election later this year, Biden or Donald Trump would be the oldest president on record. Many people have raised concerns about the candidates’ ages and whether they are too old to run for president.
However, a recent op-ed published in The Hill weighed in on whether President Biden is actually a super-ager — someone generally older than 80 who has cognitive and physical function higher than their peers, more akin to people decades younger — and argued that framing Biden in particular as “too old” is both ageist and politically motivated.
Two of the op-ed authors, S. Jay Olshansky, PhD, of the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Bradley Willcox, MD, MSc, of the John A. Burns School of Medicine at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, were among the panel of gerontologists who assessed the health of Biden and Trump leading up to the 2020 election. That report noted that “Biden is expected to outlive Trump, even though he is 3 years older” because of Biden’s “exceptional health profile for a man his age.”
Olshansky, Willcox, and the third co-author, former Texas politician Ben Barnes, wrote that Biden “exhibits characteristics consistent with super-ager status,” and all evidence “evaluated by experts in medicine and aging science” points to Biden being in good health for his age. In response, several media outlets have reported on how Biden may be a super-ager and some claimed he’s “aging backwards.”
To gain insight on whether Biden is indeed a super-ager, MedPage Today spoke with Nir Barzilai, MD, director of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine’s Institute for Aging Research in New York City and scientific director of the American Federation for Aging Research (AFAR), who also was on the team that analyzed the candidates’ health in 2020. While there isn’t a universal definition for “super-ager,” he explained that the unifying factors are older age with relatively higher cognitive and physical function.
“There is a chronological age and a biological age, and I think all of us intuitively know that those are not the same,” Barzilai said. He noted that while genes play a role in aging, so do exercise, diet, sleep, and social connectivity. These four “are much more important things than a specific test,” he added, and Biden scores well on those traits, except for potentially sleep.
Having a parent with exceptional age is also a major clue that someone could be a super-ager, he said. Both of Biden’s parents lived well into their 80s, as did Trump’s.
But, ultimately, Barzilai said he can’t definitively affirm that Biden is aging backwards — or that Trump is, for that matter — because he doesn’t know their full medical histories. Specifically, he would be interested to know their HbA1c and high-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels.
As president, a lot (but not all) of Biden’s health data are transparent and released by the government. Meanwhile, Barzilai said he’s dubious about much of the information on Trump’s health. Thus, critiquing the wealth of data on Biden while having little available on Trump could easily be weaponized for political means.
“I don’t want to say [Biden’s] younger or older … and I urge everybody to say that age is a number, not a quality,” he said.
Much of Barzilai’s past research has focused on biomarkers of aging, including through the Longevity Genes Project, which analyzed the genetics of healthy people older than 95 and their families. One of his studies from 2016 found that super-agers had a compression of morbidity, meaning that many died without diseases and those who were sick at the end were sick for shorter periods of time than most people. In other words, “health span and lifespan went together,” he noted.
Currently, AFAR is working on a study of super-agers and actively recruiting people 95 and older and their families to look into longevity genes. Other studies from the past year have found that super-agers had significantly larger entorhinal cortex neurons than their peers, as well as sharper memories — and researchers still have much to explore.
“As scientists, we’re trying to figure out what is this biology and can we extend health span and lifespan for everyone else,” Barzilai said.