Human Nature

The Fierce Urgency of Later

Bush, McCain, and political life extension.

John McCain 

Last month on Saturday Night Live, John McCain asked viewers: “What should we be looking for in our next president?” His answer: “Certainly, someone who is very, very, very old.”

Funny line. But the reason McCain was alive to deliver it is that politicians’ life expectancy isn’t what it used to be. An age that was once very, very, very old is now just old. And an age at which it used to be too late to run for office isn’t too late anymore.

In Sunday’s New York Times, Adam Nagourney looked at the question of age bias against McCain, while Sam Tanenhaus compared modern presidents with those of a century ago. Tanenhaus noted:

It is strange to think that Abraham Lincoln (52) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (51), who sagaciously guided the nation through times of unparalleled crisis, were both younger when they assumed office than George W. Bush (54) was when he did. …  The succession of mostly bearded and waistcoated worthies who occupied the White House in the Gilded Age all share the period’s fusty mien, at least in their forbidding White House portraits, though the oldest of the group, Benjamin Harrison, was sworn in at 55, nine years younger than George H. W. Bush; the youngest of that era, Theodore Roosevelt, at 42 was also the youngest in history.

Why did the men of yesteryear run for and win the presidency earlier in life than today’s politicians do? Because they had to.

As Nagourney and Tanenhaus point out, life expectancy at birth has increased since the 1800s and even since 1975. But that index doesn’t fully capture the situation of the aspiring politician. Life expectancy at birth is heavily influenced by infant mortality, a factor that quickly disappears from the equation. The number that affects politicians more directly is life expectancy at 20, 30, or 40. Even then, life expectancy overstates their time horizon. The ability of modern medicine to keep you alive longer doesn’t guarantee that your extra years will be productive. A lot of what we do now is keep people alive past the point when they’re functional.

Figures released last week by the National Center for Health Statistics show that life expectancy for an American boy born in 2006 was 75.4. For a man who turned 30 that year, having survived early death risks, remaining life expectancy was 47.2. For a man who turned 40 that year, it was 37.9.

Look back at previous eras, and you’ll see how significantly these numbers have changed. According to NCHS data (see Table 11), in 1900, a 30-year-old man could expect 34.8 remaining years. By 1990, a 40-year-old man could expect 35.1 remaining years. In other words, George W. Bush could screw around until age 40 and still look forward to more remaining years than Teddy Roosevelt could look forward to at 30. Roosevelt, sworn in at 42, could expect about 26 more years of life. Bush, sworn in at 54, could expect almost the same.

Those figures represent total remaining life. The number of years you can expect to be healthy or active is another matter. As Human Nature previously reported, a 2003 paper by economist Lorens Helmchen notes that for men born between 1830 and 1845—that includes the presidents of the late 1800s—the average age at which chronic illness began was 56 for heart disease, 54 for arthritis, and 54 for respiratory disease. For men born between 1918 and 1927—the presidents of the late 1900s—these diseases arrived a full decade later. If Roosevelt had waited to run for president until the age at which Bush ran, he might well have been incapacitated before he made it.

Where do these trends leave McCain? The latest figures suggest that remaining life expectancy for a 70-year-old man is 14 years. That’s two and a half years better than remaining life expectancy was for a man of similar age in 1980, when Reagan was elected at age 69. So although McCain, who’s now 71, would be two and a half years older than Reagan was on Inauguration Day, his time horizon would be no worse. (Whether he’d start losing his marbles, as Reagan did, is a trickier question. My colleague Chris Beam examines the age data on cognitive impairment here.)

The trend in healthy life expectancy should also hearten McCain. Three years ago, at Human Nature’s request, Dr. Kenneth Manton of Duke’s Center for Demographic Studies calculated that for a 65-year-old person in 1935, active-life expectancy—the average number of remaining years a person could expect to live free of chronic functional impairment—was 8.8 years. Following the trend line through data for 1982 and 1999, Manton estimated that the same number of active years could be expected by a 70-year-old in 1999 and by a 73-year-old in 2015. Even if you deduct a couple of years from McCain’s prospects just for being male, the tables suggest he’s got enough time left to serve two healthy terms. That’s far from guaranteed, as Tim Russert’s untimely death reminds us. But it’s what the tables predict.

George Washington: born in 1732, dead at 67. Ulysses S. Grant: born in 1822, dead at 63. Woodrow Wilson: born in 1856, dead at 67. John McCain: born in 1936, still ticking at 71, with years to look forward to. It may not be fair. But that’s life.